September 17, 2021

Pages from the Past: Feb. 1987

A New Deal Experiment Transforms Key West

Oppressed by the Depression, Key West was a shambles. But then an imaginative New Dealer put the town back to work to create a charming, thriving resort.

Gene Burnett | 6/1/2008
FRA workers
Federal Relief Administration workers do repairs on Duval Street in Key West in 1935.

Throughout the 1920s, the people of the little tropical island of Key West shuffled along in a torpid daze of not-so-genteel poverty. Relatively untouched by Florida’s boom, they were content to eke out a tenuous existence mainly from the meager coin of fishing and sporadic tourism, supplemented now and then with a little furtive rumrunning to Cuba.

Sailing into the town harbor in 1928 (for a 12-year stay), writer Ernest Hemingway dubbed the island “the St. Tropez of the poor.” Puzzled islanders figured, well, he got that second part right.

Thus, when the Great Depression rolled over the nation in the 1930s, no one was surprised to see the two-mile by four-mile island shattered to its coral rock bottom, laid low by an economic coma that officials called “more acute and oppressive” than any other in the country. By 1934, some 80% of Key West’s 11,600 citizens were on relief, a bare relief at that. The city government, which already had defaulted on several millions in bonded debt, no longer could afford fire, police or sanitation services. City employees were paid in script (merchants accepting the script used it to pay their city taxes). Instead of selling apples, men peddled coconuts on town streets or tried to catch sharks —$1.50 for a seven-footer. Children sold Spanish limes or dove off the Mallory docks for pennies tossed by occasional tourists.

Otherwise the men — native Bahamian-descended “conchs,” black and white, or Cuban sons of early cigar workers — sat at tables in Pepe’s Cafe or Sloppy Joe’s, munching penny “bollos” cakes (black-eyed peas) and bewailing the times.

The historic city had taken a long spiral down from its colorful shipwrecking days, barely a century ago, when it was the richest city per capita in the country. Much later, its thriving sponge industry would be pre-empted by the Greeks at Tarpon Springs and its flourishing cigar factories, beset by labor rifts, would scurry to Tampa. Even its Army and Navy installations, its economic bedrock before and during three wars, were cut to skeletal status after World War I.

But the town’s darkest days coincided with the arrival of President Franklin D. Roosevelt and the New Deal, and the little island was about to become an “experiment” that would capture national attention.

The experiment began dramatically enough. In an unprecedented act on July 2, 1934, the town sparked national headlines when desperate city fathers “surrendered” their powers of city government to the state. A sympathetic Gov. David Sholtz, declaring a state of emergency, promptly authorized Julius F. Stone Jr., Florida head of the Federal Emergency Relief Administration (FERA), to set up a local body, the Key West Administration, and implement a relief program.

An able, perceptive and imaginative New Dealer, Stone faced three alternatives. He could pump in a $2.5 million relief program; he could simply dump the island and relocate its 3,000 families; or he could give the town a job by which to create its own economy as an attractive tourist resort. With its native charm and tropical seclusion, plus the finest winter climate and fishing in the country, Stone envisioned a city that could more than rival Bermuda, a place where “there would be no blatant race tracks, no blaring night clubs attracting people who cannot appreciate the beauty, quiet and subtle charm of the city.” Instead it would draw “the tired businessman, or woman, the convalescent and the artist in the broadest sense of the word.”

Assisted by a bevy of bright, mostly young FERA men and women and armed with a $1 million allocation for the first 18 months — much of this to provide direct aid to the needy — Stone plunged into the task. The infectious enthusiasm of the group fomented an intellectual excitement that soon enveloped the whole town.

Keenly aware of the need for national exposure for such a resort plan, Stone kept the momentum of the initial national publicity sustained with the aid of FERA publicist M.E. Golfond, who sent out a steady stream of news and feature stories to the national media. The project was highlighted with Stone’s brainchild of calling for a “volunteer work force” to donate 25 hours a week to get the town in shape for the visitors.


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