The First Key Lime Festival

The First Key Lime Festival - A group of people sitting posing for the camera - Florida Keys
The festival included a Key Lime Queen and four princesses.

The Key lime has inspired intimate celebrations in the Florida Keys for almost two centuries, but it wasn’t until 1953 that the Upper Keys Chamber of Commerce launched The Upper Keys Lime Festival and enlisted our dear citrus to “promote early tourism and prove that there are things to do in the Upper Keys besides fish, swim, relax and eat Key lime pie.”

According to articles published in The Miami News, the first lime festival kicked off December 5,1953, with Chamber of Commerce President Harry Harris introducing former U.S. Senator Claude Pepper and Florida’s Secretary of State R. A. Gray during a ceremony at Indian Key Fill. A giant fish fry followed—priced at just .75 cents—where crowds were entertained by a water parade of 100 decorated pleasure, commercial, and charter fishing boats. Local “youngsters” held water skiing exhibitions under the direction of John Woodruff that afternoon, kicking the eight-day event into high gear.

The festival was a celebration of people and included an entire day dedicated to the Seminole and Calusa tribes of the Keys. Day two started with memorial ceremonies honoring those who died exploring and developing our island chain during which Navy Chaplain R.C. Tindall presented a choir from the Key West Navy base, and the Fleet Sonar School Band played. A second fish fry was held on the second day of the festival and, with an eye to the future, 19-year-old Dorothy Albury was crowned Key Lime Festival Queen. Dorothy reigned over the events with her four princesses, Carolyn Smith, Babs Kaufman, Jackie Sweeting and Jo-Anne Byrum. Photos of the Key lime royalty appeared in newspapers from Texas to Pennsylvania, sending a nice reminder to the outside world that the Florida Keys were rich with beauty and tropical flavor.

Day three kicked off with a third fish fry, and later in the week everyone celebrated Conch Chowder Day with real Keys conch chowder prepared by Sid and Roxie Siderius of The Green Turtle Inn, served by “King Conch” Johnny Russell. Key lime pies-a-plenty were served all festival long, and Arthur Godfrey Day saw final judging of the Key Lime Pie Baking Contest created to find the best Key lime pie baker in South Florida. Finalists included Marguerite Carrero, Alice Bartelt, Helen Trandel, Marie Price, Bessie Bland and Elizabeth Curry.

When attendees were not busy eating at a fish fry or sampling Key lime pie, they enjoyed tours of the lime groves and introductions to other plants and flowers growing in the Keys. These tours were organized by Helen Cunningham and the Key Largo Garden Club. Our magnificent wildlife was showcased too, with the Audubon Society conducting four tours a day and allowing participants to view “the many beautiful birds in full plumage” including roseate spoonbills.

Things got a little crazy with a bridge and canasta tournament hosted at the Elk’s Club on Windley Key mid-festival. There was also an open house at the electricity generating plant in Tavernier, and the new Navy water pumping station was shown off. Ed Tommerlin took charge of a swimming party for school children at Plantation Yacht Harbor. Captains Bonnie Smith and Frankie Albright hosted a one-day fishing tournament with prizes for the biggest barracuda and snapper.

Of course the tart and juicy Key lime was the main attraction and took a staring role. George Sawyer, Jerry Mills and the Tavernier Fire Department staged Lime Follies and the eight-day celebration ended with the Lime Festival Ball and another fish fry. An abbreviated second annual Upper Keys Lime Festival was held the following year but, for reasons unknown to me, the Upper Keys Chamber appears to have dropped the concept. Perhaps they had bigger fish to fry.

Whatever the case, the next 58 years of citrus celebrations became more intimate once again until 2012 when Marky Pierson and I launched The Key West Key Lime Festival at the suggestion of our friend Carol Shaughnessy.

Today’s festival is much different than the original, but the spirit remains unchanged. Now we drop pies from the top of the Key West Lighthouse and pie baking contests have become pie eating contests. New events like the Key Lime Pie Hop, Key Lime Cocktail Sip & Stroll and Key Lime Scavenger Hunt have become festival favorites for a new generation. Though it doesn’t have a fish fry, it remains a celebration of the people, the culture, the citrus and the eccentrics who now, and always, have made the Florida Keys one of the finest places in the world. Love & Limes.

The 2019 Key Lime Festival runs July 4-7. Check out this year’s festival schedule at

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David Sloan researches intriguing stories from Key West's past to share island history people might not hear on the Conch Train.