Bruce Neff is founder of Key West Historic Markers. He’s both an detective and historian, often paging through old newspapers and documents at the Key West Library to distinguish truth from folklore.
The non-profit Key West Historic Markers features 80 plus Historic Markers and 500 years of heritage on the island’s oldest streets. There are audio tours, guided walking tours and some trivia questions.
“Rumor has it Thomas Edison brought power to the Southernmost House and shot torpedoes out of the second story of the Custom House where his office was,” said Neff. But before it can become a stated fact on a marker, Neff makes certain to confirm the story with the vast knowledge stores of Key West Historian Tom Hambright.
“It is not history unless Tom Hambright says it is,” Neff said.
Hambright could not confirm or deny the hearsay about Edison, but he could confirm he spent some time in Key West. He said Thomas Edison was doing experimental work with the Navy during WWI and Edison most likely worked with detonators.
“He did spend some time evidently at the Little White House, which used to be part of the Navy and they had a munitions range on Women Key where they could test explosives,” said Hambright. “The only photograph of him is by Ft. Taylor with what looks like to be mines in background.”
There are plenty of historical tidbits in Key West. For example, Key West’s first millionaire, William Curry, gave each of his children $5,000 to build their own homes, according to Neff. Some of Key West’s finest architecture — such as the current locales of Fogarty’s, Hard Rock Café, The Curry Mansion, The Southernmost House, Key West Women’s Club, and the Dr. Joseph Yates Porter House — were all constructed for the Curry family.
Neff loves history so much he married into it. His wife Patricia Gato Madiedo is the descendent of Gato Cigar Factory owner Eduardo Hidalgo Gato. As one of his first projects, Neff put together a façade of a typical cigar factory worker’s cottage. (It’s located on Louisa Street next to First State Bank.) The cigar factory built 40 cottages to house its workers.
“Affordable housing has been a problem in Key West since the late 1800’s. There were actually 16,000 people living here,” said Neff.