This column appears weekly because the Florida Keys have more to offer than great fishing and diving, fantastic weather, spectacular sunsets and world-famous drinking establishments. 

Monroe County and the Florida Keys are also home to an incredible and surprising breadth of history. Historically speaking, the islands represent an embarrassment of riches, and the more time that is spent admiring all the facets of their stories, two things become increasingly apparent.

First, the more time you spend with the history, the more you come to appreciate the full spectrum of the Florida Keys’ story. The scope is extraordinary. The second thing is that you understand the connections shared between the islands. None of the best Florida Keys stories are strictly Key West, Key Vaca, Matecumbe, or Key Largo stories but are, in fact, Florida Keys stories.

This is partly because the islands are built atop the skeletal remains of an ancient barrier reef system with a relatively shallow layer of natural “soil” and humus. As a result, the island chain’s flora has learned to spread its roots wide to create a strong footprint rather than digging down into the island.

The perfect place to see this demonstrated is in Islamorada, at the Windley Key Fossil Reef Geological State Park. The park is home to several limestone quarries that operated before, during and after Henry Flagler built the Key West Extension of his Florida East Coast Railway.

Flagler used the quarry site when he built his train to Key West. In fact, the small railroad town of Quarry developed across what is today the Overseas Highway and in the general area of the parking lot at the roadside attraction called Theater of the Sea.

In 1909, one of the railroad superintendents working at Windley Key’s Quarry Station was Reynolds Cothron. The Cothrons arrived in the Florida Keys in the early summer months of 1909 when the family boarded a stern-wheeled paddleboat and moved from the Miami area to the Lower Keys. The patriarch, Reynolds Cothron, was employed by the Florida East Coast Railway and assigned to the Niles Channel Bridge project during the construction of the Over-Sea Railroad. The bridge connected Ramrod to Sugarloaf Key.

When an October hurricane blew through, the Cothron’s left the bridge project and moved to the Upper Keys. The 1910 census shows the Cothrons living on Upper Matecumbe Key, and by 1920 they were identified as farmers growing Key limes, tomatoes, and cantaloupes.

The Cothrons, Reynolds and Mary, had nine children. None would leave a more significant impression on the island chain than their firstborn, Edwin Alonzo Cothron. Born June 7, 1904, he would grow up to be a builder who left his mark up and down the island chain and beyond. With his father, he helped construct the coral rock Matheson House on Lignumvitae Key Botanical State Park and the trails on the island that are still used on ranger-ledtours. Alonzo would later go into business with Berlin Felton.

Berlin was born in 1908. His father, Thomas Felton, had arrived in the Key Largo community of Tavernier circa 1905. Berlin graduated from the only high school in the Florida Keys, back in those days, Key West High School, and grew up to be something of a jack-of-several-trades. Twenty-one years later, in 1929, Berlin was building a six-room house north of Tavernier, in Rock Harbor, along the Overseas Highway where he would move with his new wife, Eloise Carey.

In the early 1930s, he invested in building what became Upper Matecumbe Key’s Rustic Inn. The inn offered cleans beds and home-cooked meals as well as cold beverages and gas pumps for those traveling along the Overseas Highway. The inn reportedly served drinks stronger than the law allowed during the Prohibition era. Games of chance were also available.

In the wake of the devastating 1935 Labor Day Hurricane, the Rustic Inn was one of the few structures that remained somewhat upright and where members of the local community gathered. After the National Guard moved into the area, it was observed that National Guardsmen were seen attempting to break open slot machines at the inn. Three months after the storm, on December 15, the following advertisement appeared in the Miami Herald: “Rustic Inn, Matecumbe: 5 bedrooms, large dining room, fully equipped. Lease. Owner Berlin Felton.”

Alonzo Cothron and Berlin Felton would join forces and create the A & B Fish Company in 1936. A & B, the “A” representing Alonzo and the “B” representing Berlin, would cover a number of businesses up and down the Florida Keys. Among their endeavors, the two raised stone crabs in the abandoned railroad quarry where Theater of the Sea’s dolphins perform today. Their Upper Matecumbe complex was also home to the A & B grocery store, ice house, and charter boat docks that offered gas, too.

In 1947, they opened the iconic Key West waterfront restaurant A & B Lobster House. Today, it is home to Alonzo’s Oyster Bar and Berlin’s, a speakeasy-styled cocktail bar. 1947 was also when the Rustic Inn was sold and reopened as Islamorada’s world-famous Green Turtle Inn.

If you would like to have the Weekly delivered to your mailbox or inbox along with our daily news blast, please subscribe here.

Brad Bertelli is an author, speaker, and Florida Keys historian. His latest book, “The Florida Keys Skunk Ape Files,” is a fun blend of two of his favorite subjects — Florida Keys history and the Skunk Ape.