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Florida's Micronation: The Conch Republic

by
Jul 14th, 2021

Did you know that Key West is the capital of a micronation? Who would have thought?

The Conch Republic is an official micronation within the United States, borne out of a tense conflict involving a roadblock, water balloons and some stale Cuban bread. 

Here’s how it all started. 

Florida's Micronation: The Conch Republic

The border patrol blockade

In response to a tougher approach on illegal immigration and narcotics, the United States Border Patrol set up a roadblock on U.S. Highway 1 just north of the merger onto Monroe County Road 905A in March of 1982. The intention was to be better able to search all traffic going out of the Florida Keys onto the mainland.

This roadblock severely restricted traffic going in and out of the Florida Keys, hurting tourism all along the Keys but especially in Key West. The Key West City Council recognized that the roadblock was the source of the sharp drop in tourism, and it began requesting hearings from both the Florida government and the federal government. 

Arguably the only commercial entity to benefit from the roadblock was Eastern Air Lines which, at that point, was the only airline with service from Miami International Airport to and from Key West International Airport. Tourists and residents in Key West found it easier to fly to the mainland rather than drive through the traffic that was at a virtual standstill.

Key West Mayor Dennis Wardlow and the city council had submitted complaints and had received no response from the Border Patrol, the state government or the federal government. Naturally, it was time to consider alternate options. Like, for example, secession from the Union.

Secession

If you’re wondering if secession is a bit of an overreaction to a single roadblock, then you’re not the only one. However, this ultimately faux secession was just serious enough to accomplish what needed to be done. 

Wardlow and the city council felt that the border patrol roadblock and the lack of response from the government left the city of Key West in a unique situation. Technically, the border station treated anything below the roadblock as “foreign soil” since the vehicle searches, customs forms and passport checks were commonplace at other true border stations. Additionally, their request for aid had gone unanswered. 

So, on April 23, 1982, the mayor and the council officially declared Key West an independent nation and seceded from the United States. The area seceding stretched from Key West, up along the Keys and ended at Skeeter’s Last Chance Saloon in Florida City, right where the roadblock was set up. This new nation was affectionately named the Conch Republic after the locals who had already been calling themselves Conchs for years. The official Conch Republic flag was then hoisted above the city hall above a chorus of cheers by delighted tourists and residents.

This tongue-in-cheek protest was accompanied by a declaration of war against the United States, followed by the Great Battle of the Conch Republic, in which the Key West schooner Western Union attacked a U.S. Coast Guard ship with stale bread, Conch fritters and water balloons. The Coast Guard ship retaliated by spraying the Conch Republic Navy with fire hoses. 

In yet another act of "war," newly appointed Prime Minister Wardlow symbolically broke a loaf of old Cuban bread over the head of a uniformed U.S. Naval officer; this vicious attack represents the only injury of the war. 

Ultimately, this brutal and bloody war ended the same day it began. Prime Minister Wardlow surrendered to the very same Naval officer he had just attacked with bread, and he immediately petitioned the United States for $1 billion in foreign aid. 

What happened next?

The secession, battle and surrender of the Conch Republic was all done in mock-seriousness and good fun, but the publicity stunt accomplished exactly what Wardlow and the council hoped it would.

In light of the micronation’s plight circulating through national news outlets, Border Patrol removed the roadblock and inspection station soon after the secession, opening up traffic and allowing travelers to access the Keys once more. Key West never got the foreign aid it applied for, but the tourism industry skyrocketed amid the excitement. The nation even has a national anthem! Souvenir passports, license plates and memorabilia bearing the Conch Republic’s flag are still sold in Key West today!

The Conch Republic has exercised its official power a few times since the secession, though mainly in acts of protest. 

In 1995, the U.S. Army Reserve conducted an exercise in Key West, simulating the invasion of a foreign island off a Coast Guard and carrying out affairs as if the locals were indeed foreigners. 

The one problem? No one notified Key West officials of the exercise, and the council petitioned the federal government for a say in the exercise. Yet again, the Conch Republic was ignored and the exercise continued as planned, leaving the micronation with just one option: full-scale war. (As a joke, of course.)

Wardlow and his fellow 1982 secessionists organized the Conch Republic Navy and deployed the Western Union again to fight for the island’s independence, pelting U.S. military ships with more Cuban bread and water balloons until U.S. Army officials sent a letter formally apologizing for the inconvenience. The mock war ended without casualty, and life continued on.

Another act of protest in 1995 saw a Conch Republic Air Force seaplane deployed to Fort Jefferson at the Dry Tortugas National Park during the 1995 government shutdown. The shutdown threatened to put the park out of business, as it wasn’t receiving enough income to cover the cost to keep it open each day and was a major tourist destination for Key West.

Conch residents raised money to keep the park open, but no one was in Washington to accept the money. To get around the problem, a small group of Conch officials flew into the island and occupied it in order to get arrested and have standing to sue the government. Park officials refused the money and issued them a citation, but the case was dropped shortly after the government reopened

If you live in our luxury South Florida apartments, then don’t pass up on the opportunity to visit the United States’ only micronation! 

Have fun!

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Featured photo courtesy Pixabay/paulbr75

Author of Article

Colleen Ford is a South African who now lives in Spokane, Washington. She loves to travel, camp (in warm weather) and bake.

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