Key Wester mixes the past, the present

skinney@keynoter.comMarch 10, 2010 

Bruce Neff is rebuilding Key West's history, one marker at a time. The first 15 are scheduled to go up in April.

BY SEAN KINNEY

Through technology and community outreach, Key West history buff Bruce Neff is working to offer residents and visitors a "big-picture" understanding of the Southernmost City's historical importance, one landmark at a time.

Neff established a pending nonprofit, Key West Historic Marker Tour, with the goal of posting some 400 historic markers throughout town and linking the markers to a cell-phone tour and comprehensive Web site.

"I realized how little history locals know about our island," Neff told the Keynoter over lemonade at Jack Flat's. "They have bits and pieces but not a big picture." But, he emphasized, "This is not a house tour."

Neff was the force behind Gato Village Pocket Park, which he crafted to re-create an early 20th Century cigar maker's cottage -- a prevalent sight in Key West, home to some 200 cigar factories at the time.

Key West cigar making made up the bulk of our local economy and, through ex-patriot Cuban rollers donating a portion of their wages to the cause of revolutionaries like Jose Marti, helped fund the Cuban revolt against Spanish rule.

For his Historic Marker Tour, "We're covering the past 497 years of history," Neff said, referring to 1513, when explorer Ponce de Leon landed in the Dry Tortugas.

The first 15 markers are scheduled to go up in April. That's to be followed as the research and funding fall into place until the end goal is reached.

The markers direct viewers to a local phone number that provides a voice description of the location's historical significance. There is also a Web-based component providing links to information, photos and oral histories.

"The whole thing is a free tour and if you have a cell phone or Web-enabled phone, you can access the entire tour," Neff said.

Neff is partnering with students at Key West High School and Florida Keys Community College to put together a dual-enrollment research class that would allow students to apply their academic skills to what he's doing while earning college credits.

"For instance, journalism students could work with history students to research a property and write-up something appropriate for our Web site," Neff said.

There's also a need for community members to share their memories of life in Key West.

"We have a whole generation that's soon going to pass that has wonderful stories to tell. We're really trying to capture the community as it was. They have remembrances, pictures, stories that can all be a part. As we develop these different stories, we'll add to it. It's growing."

Neff also encouraged people to nominate worthy sites and even possibly serve as a "voice of history," providing narration recorded locally at KONK 1500-AM. Contact Neff at kwhistoricmarker@aol.com.

The Key West Historic Marker Tour has gained approval from the Key West Historic Architectural Review Committee, Planning Board, City Commission and the state Department of Community Affairs.

Here are the locations on the Key West Historic Marker Tour

The following properties are committed future stops on the Key West Historic Marker Tour:

  • 124 Duval St., the Custom House Museum.

  • 319 Duval St., the Key West Woman's Club.

  • 322 Duval St., the Oldest House.

  • 336 Duval St., the oldest schoolhouse.

  • 1117 Duval St., the Speakeasy Inn.

  • 1400 Duval St., the Southernmost House.

  • 532 Fleming St., first drug store in Key West.

  • 600 Fleming St., the Marquesa Hotel.

  • 314 Simonton St., Casa Antigua.

  • 530 Simonton St., the first Jewish synagogue.

  • 1201 Simonton St., Gato Village neighborhood.

  • 410 Caroline St., the Heritage House and Robert Frost cottage.

  • 429 Caroline St., the Porter Mansion.

  • 511 Caroline St., the Curry Mansion.

  • 410 Wall St., El Meson de Pepe.

  • 517 Grinnell St., the Haitian Art Gallery.

  • 610 Southard St., the Benjamin Curry house.

  • 724 Eaton St., Shirley Freeman's family home.

  • Intersection of Virginia and Grinnell streets, Fire House 3.

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