KEYS HISTORY: RELIVING OLD COLUMNS & SPREADING LOCAL HISTORY

On tour with the not-for-profit Active Disabled Americans. BRAD BERTELLI/Contributed

While it is hard to believe, I have been writing a history column in one of the local newspapers for a decade. I find it hard to believe. Since 2018, my work has appeared in The Keys Weekly Newspapers, and I could not be more grateful for the opportunity to share my stories up and down the island chain.

The column is a fantastic outlet for what have become my two greatest habits: history and writing. Thankfully, it is not my only outlet because apparently, I have a lot to say. If you have not visited my Facebook group Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli, consider yourself officially invited to take a look. I post daily history nuggets and share some great pictures of how the islands used to be. The page has proved extraordinary and surprisingly popular. One of the best things that happen there are the memories and stories shared by, among others, many longtime and lifetime Conchs. While I love sharing what I have learned over the years, it is wonderful to have created a space where the history and the stories are shared back and forth in the comments. I learn a ton from the page.

One of the things the group has inspired me to do is revisit some of the old columns. I went back and picked out some of my favorite pieces and then spent time reimagining and enhancing them to create versions of their stories that have been allowed to step outside of their 800-word constraints and stretch their legs a bit. The result has been a collection about Ben Baker and the wrecking industry, pineapples, Key lime pie, the Overseas Highway, Fern Butters, and more called “Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli, Volume 1.” If everything goes according to plan, the book should be out by the Labor Day weekend. It should be noted, of course, that things rarely go as planned.

Though writing is my preferred means of sharing local history, it is not the only way I am able to share it with the public. On the first Monday of every month, the Islamorada Moose Lodge invites me in to talk about some aspect of the local history. This free event is open to the public. The program starts at 6 p.m.

For the Monday, Aug. 1 program, I will be talking about William J. Krome, the 60-foot Schooner Island Home, the Purple Isles and how legends and myths have colored the Islamorada story. The Purple Isles is a fun topic, and people in the community can be passionate about the story. When I give this talk or write a story about the legend of the Purple Isles, it is the only time I receive less than flattering emails in return.

One of the projects I am most excited to be a part of is the not-for-profit Active Disabled Americans’ latest Live Unbound project. Executive Director Ken Ostebo asked me to come aboard with Captain Mick and spend a few hours on Sunday mornings talking about the local history. According to Ostebo, “Our initiative is committed to inclusion. It is our belief that the water and all it has to offer is a place of healing, reflection, and joy. Our goal is to normalize ‘normal’ for everyone.”

Active Disabled Americans opened the Live Unbound program to the public, in association with Bass Pro/World Wide Sportsman, on Sunday, July 17. The boat excursion is free of charge and offers a complimentary tour around some of the storied waters surrounding Islamorada. Ostebo says, “We set sail from the Biscayne Marina facility every Sunday at 8 a.m. and travel in and around Islamorada and its scenic coastline. These trips will be offered on a first-come, first-serve basis.” Trips can be booked through their website at www.activedisabledamericans.org.

During the three-hour tour, I spend more than two hours talking about the amazing local history and a little about the environment. In addition to spending some quality time out on the water, we do a little bird watching. On the inaugural trip, we saw an Atlantic yellow-nosed albatross sitting up in the bushy green branches of a red mangrove tree. I had no idea that there were albatrosses in the Keys. They are considered rare visitors, so I learned something, too. 

To help subsidize my history and writing habit, I am also spending a couple of days a week bartending at the world-famous Robbie’s Marina. The best part is that, from the bar, I can see Indian Key. If you are in the neighborhood, stop by, feed the tarpon and have a frosty beverage at one of the great Florida Keys’ roadside attractions. Also, please stop by my Facebook group Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli, and be sure to check out the great work being done by Active Disabled Americans at their website www.activedisabledamericans.org. If you are free on Monday evening, Aug. 1, come by the Islamorada Moose Lodge and listen while I tell the true tale of Islamorada. Hope to see you there.

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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.