When ships ran aground on the reefs around Key West in the 1800s, there was no Facebook or Twitter to send out alerts.

The conch horn became a local tool of communication to signal a salvage opportunity for the island’s earliest and most beloved families.

This weekend, the Old Island Restoration Foundation and the Oldest House in Key West will honor another island tradition continuing in its 50th year when they host the annual conch shell blowing contest.

This quaint local custom, according to OIRF administrator Cork Tarplee, is continued today in many local celebrations like weddings or to announce the birth of a child.

Participants of all shapes and sizes will pucker up for prizes across several age categories. A panel of local experts in the art, including Sir Peter Anderson of the Conch Republic, will carefully judge the quality, duration, volume and novelty of sound produced by each contestant. Both natives, aptly known as Conchs, and visitors from across the globe are invited to participate in this free event.

Tarplee estimated that approximately 16,000 guests toured the Oldest House in Key West last year, primarily because the free tour is promoted to cruise ship passengers upon their arrival.

The 12-member board of community leaders volunteers their time to continue the efforts begun by a group of Key West citizens in the 1950s.

Jesse Porter Newton Kirk and several ladies of Key West were unhappy about the rapid pace at which the Southernmost City was being developed, according to Tarplee.

“They were concerned that what made the place special was being lost,” he explained.

In 1960, OIRF incorporated as a non-profit foundation and was the driving force behind Key West’s preservation efforts for a number of years before the city formed the Old Island Restoration Commission, renamed in 1984 as the Historic Architectural Review Commission.

These days, besides preparing for the flood of conch shell competitors this weekend, Tarplee is charged with organizing some 300-plus volunteers who conduct tours of the Oldest House, located at 322 Duval Street, as well as facilitating four annual tours of historic Key West homes.

“That’s a huge donation to the Old Island Restoration Foundation that homeowners allow as many at 1,000 people through their home in a day,” he commended. “In fact, in 54 years of organizing these tours, homes along the tour have rarely been repeated.”

The historic home tours, as well as rental of the immaculately shaded garden space behind the home for weddings and special events, are the primary fundraisers that support the ongoing preservation efforts of the Oldest House. Tarplee said the state provides no money for the upkeep of the property, so the foundation spent about $18,000 in 2011 to keep the facilities in working order.

Bright, freshly painted walls and a handicap accessible ramp are among the freshest updates for those who’ve not visited recently.


OIRF rents office space in the Oldest House, which was among their earliest restoration projects. The Foundation sought the financial assistance of Mrs. Robert Austin of Plantation Key to purchase the home that was left in a state of disrepair when Earl Johnson, the final Watlington family member to reside on property passed in 1972. Austin deeded it to the Historic Key West Preservation Board, later renamed the Historic Florida Keys Foundation.

In 1975 the Board negotiated a management contract with the Old Island Restoration Foundation to restore the house and keep it open to the public.

Tarplee said he’s often intrigued by the starkly different responses from American and European travelers who tour the historic home and garden at no cost.

“After touring the Oldest House, they’ll often say, ‘This looks just like my grandmother’s house!’” he commented. “For our European guests, they often comment that their own homes are at least a couple hundred years old.”

This weekend, the Southernmost City will swell with local pride when the horns sound at noon from the gardens behind the Oldest House.

For more information about the Old Island Restoration Foundation or this weekend’s Conch Shell Blowing Contest, visit www.oirf.org.

OIRF Administrator Cork Tarplee, wearing the signature red shirt worn by volunteer docents who conduct tours daily 10-4, explained the mission of the Foundation while showcasing historic pieces on the tour. The museum is closed Sunday and Wednesday.

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