KEYS HISTORY: HITCHHIKER BECOMES HERMIT ARTIST OF KEY LARGO

Sonntag inside his Key Largo Art Gallery circa 1952. JIM HADLEY/Contributed

Editor’s Note: This the first in a two-part series on Harry Sontang, the Hermit Artist of Key Largo. 

In 1960, a Kissimmee couple traveled to St. Thomas, Virgin Islands, to enjoy a tropical island vacation. They stayed in a rooming house where, underneath the bed, they discovered a large bag.

When they slid it out from under the bed and set the bag on the sheets, the husband and wife looked inside. They discovered a cache of art that had either been forgotten, disowned or accidentally left behind.

When the Florida couple asked the landlord if he was interested in the collection, he said, “No, take it with you when you leave, if you want.” What they discovered inside the bag was a large collection of paintings, mostly watercolors, a handful of photographs and some newspaper articles. At the end of their vacation, they packed up their luggage, grabbed the bag filled with art and flew back to Florida. The bag, at some point, ended up in a Kissimmee storage locker.

On a lucky July day in 1992, Frank McNall was driving by that same Kissimmee storage facility and happened to stop to talk to a woman cleaning out one of the lockers. He bought a couple of things she had stored inside. Before he walked away, she said, “You can take this old bag of art my husband and I found on St. Thomas, if you want.”

McNall  took the bag, put it in the back of his truck, and drove to his apartment. Later that day, Chuck Faulkner stopped by his friend’s apartment for a visit. McNall  told him about the bag he left downstairs in his truck. Faulkner said, “Maybe you should go get it in case it rains.”

The bag was collected and brought upstairs, where McNall and Faulkner opened it up to see what it had in store. Not an hour later, an afternoon Florida deluge poured down. If Faulkner had not said something, what would have happened was that the bag’s contents, 170 original watercolors, photographs, and some newspaper articles, would have all been destroyed and most likely tossed into a Dumpster.

Instead, a one-of-a-kind Florida Keys treasure was saved. The collection of watercolors, photographs and newspaper articles was by, of, and about a Keys legend, Harry Sonntag – the Hermit Artist of Key Largo.

Harry J. Sonntag was born in Astoria, New York, on Oct. 12, 1900. At 16, he was studying at the Pratt Institute of Art. He attended the Art Students League twice, first in 1917 and again in 1922. Harry would never outgrow his passion for art. In a story published in the July 6, 1952, edition of the Miami Daily News, Sonntag is quoted as saying: “Art is the universal language, and my desire is to bring beauty to the multitudes, so that people may realize how lovely is this world.” 

Sonntag left New York on what turned into quite an adventure. First, he headed northeast and explored Vermont and New Hampshire. From there, he traveled west until he reached Arizona, where he stopped because the landscapes absolutely captivated him. When he was done admiring the subtle beauty of the desert landscapes, he walked back out to the side of the road, lifted up his thumb and waited for someone to take him west toward California.

Hitchhiking forward, after traveling through California, Sonntag ventured up into Oregon and then Washington, where the local ghost towns enchanted him. He then headed east until he arrived at Devil’s Lake, Wisconsin, where he was drawn to the picturesque horizons offered by the rolling hills. He stayed for three years before going back to Manhattan, where he painted in a private gallery. His time in Manhattan would not end on a happy note. His studio caught fire, burned down and incinerated all of his paintings, according to the printed accounts. It would not be the last time one of his collections was reported to have been lost to conflagration. 

In the late 1940s, he packed up, hit the road and stuck out his thumb again. Drawn to Florida, he hitched south to the Keys. It was circa 1949, and, like the ghost towns of Washington and the rolling hills of Wisconsin, the Florida Keys captivated him. On Key Largo, he squatted on what is today considered a prime piece of oceanfront property in the area of MM 97.5 and just north of the Mandalay Marina.

Sonntag chose to build a small shack out of driftwood and tarpaper close to a small cove where he could catch fish and bathe. He also did a little bit of gardening and grew tomatoes and other vegetables. Sonntag kept a fire burning and “bathed” in the smoke to help combat the buzzing black clouds of blood-thirsty mosquitoes.

Next week: the story of Harry Sonntag, his life on Key Largo, and the whereabouts of his lost bag of art will continue.

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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.