FLORIDA KEYS HISTORY: RECALLING THE RECENT PAST

Local historian Brad Bertelli. CORI CONVERTITO/ Key West Art & Historical Society

The interesting year is ending, and from all indications, 2023 is lining up to be just as interesting, if not a little more. 

By this time last year, I was officially unemployed and trying to figure out just what the frick-and-frack I was going to do. Thanks to Collier County Museums, Key Largo Anglers Club, and Florida Bay Forever, I was afforded opportunities to work on freelance projects as I began to navigate 2022.

Truth be told, there are few opportunities for an unemployed historian in the Upper Keys. What remained clear is that I would carry on doing what I was doing and sharing these fantastic histories of the Florida Keys. What I wondered was how that certainty would manifest. I knew I would keep writing this column, which is both a challenging and amazing outlet. I will insert a big “Thank You!” to the wonderful people at The Keys Weekly Newspapers (including Jason Koler, Jim McCarthy, Alex Rickert and Mandy Miles for accommodating the 800 to 900 words about the local history I write every week). 

This year’s two big surprises developed from my Facebook group Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli. First, the response to the group has been incredible. In just this first year, membership has risen to over 10,000. The page became so popular that it inspired the second big surprise, my latest book, Volume 1 of “Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli.” Volumes 2 and 3 will be hitting the bookshelves in 2023. One of them will be dedicated to Black Caesar and other legendary pirate stories from the Florida Keys. The subjects for the other one are still developing.

The unsung hero of 2022 might be “The Florida Keys Skunk Ape Files.” I can’t say why yet but that story will be told at some point this year (fingers crossed). I wrote the book because I hadn’t dabbled in fiction for over a decade, and I wanted to just play and reconnect with the joy I get from telling a good story. The idea for the book came from an actual 1977 sighting that occurred near what is today Snapper’s Restaurant on Key Largo. 

For those who remember “The Blair Witch Project,” I modeled the book after the film by creating a series of fictional Skunk Ape (Florida’s Bigfoot) events that are presented as if they were real. The book is also filled with some great Florida Keys history because I love to write and couldn’t help myself from sharing some great local history to an audience that might not engage with it otherwise. 

“The Skunk Ape Files” also reignited my desire to improve my storytelling when exploring these Florida Keys’ histories. This is also the reason why I published my last book and why additional volumes are on the horizon. My column is a great place to share, but 800 to 900 words are often not enough to tell the stories I want to tell, and, in book form, I can use all the words I need. 

There is a reason I continue to repeat that it is difficult to tell a Key Largo, Islamorada, Marathon, or Key West story because they become larger Florida Keys stories. For such a small chain of islands, they are home to amazing stories. The Florida Keys have always been connected by more than schooners, trains or automobiles. They have, too, been bridged by something stronger than concrete and steel and thicker than water. The conduit that connects the Florida Keys, one island to another, is the pioneer blood of the families who first called these islands home. 

I consider it an honor to be able to learn about and share these stories and what seems to be shaping up is that, in 2023, I will be sharing them on a growing array of platforms. In addition to this column and the release of at least two more volumes of “Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli,” I will continue my popular monthly talks at the Islamorada Moose Lodge on the first Monday of every month. On Monday, Jan. 2, I’ll be telling stories about Alligator Key, Alligator Reef and Alligator Reef Lighthouse. 

Additional speaking events have been scheduled at the Key Largo Library, the Miami Pioneers and Natives of Dade Historical Society, and the Key West Garden Club. Other plans on the horizon of early 2023 include a bicycle tour with Keys Ebikes in Islamorada. I hope to post more information about that endeavor in the next few weeks. Discussions are underway, too, for a series of “History Dinners” for those interested in learning about some local history while enjoying a good meal. I’ll share those details as plans firm up. 

In the meantime, I’ll continue writing about and talking about the history of the Florida Keys every chance I get. Also, I’ll be bartending down at the world-famous Robbie’s Marina a couple of days a week for anyone looking to sip an adult beverage and chat about history. 

Happy Holiday to everyone, and Happy New Year to you and yours from the Sioux Street office! 

Brad Bertelli is an author, speaker, Florida Keys historian, and Honorary Conch who has been writing about the local history for two decades. Brad has called the Florida Keys home since 2001. He is the author of eight books, including The Florida Keys Skunk Ape Files, a book of historical fiction that blends two of his favorite subjects, the local history and Florida’s Bigfoot, the Skunk Ape. His latest book, Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli, Volume 1, shares fascinating glimpses into the rich and sometimes surprising histories of the Florida Keys. To satisfy your daily history fix, join his Facebook group Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli.