Key West gets history back

skinney@keynoter.comOctober 16, 2013 

Monroe County historian Tom Hambright shows off an antique viewer that's part of a 1,000-piece collection from rare book and document dealer Scott DeWolfe.

BY SEAN KINNEY

The Monroe County Public Library last week received an important collection of more than 1,000 historical documents and photographs that includes an 1823 letter that essentially founds Key West as a U.S. Navy outpost.

The 47-word "general order" is signed by Commodore David Porter and commands a flag raising and 17-gun salute for Thompson's Island, now Key West, establishing the Navy's Anti-Piracy Squadron in the Southernmost City.

County historian Tom Hambright said the library's Florida History Department is "very lucky" to have had the Key West Maritime Heritage Society purchase the collection from Maine-based rare-book and document dealer Scott DeWolfe with a contribution by an anonymous donor.

"Our main goal," Hambright said, "is to have these documents available for research."

He smiled as he displayed well-preserved documents, including an 1858 book on wrecking and salvage law penned by U.S. Judge William Marvin.

"There are maybe 10 of these left in the world," Hambright said as he carefully handled the book in a climate-controlled storage vault.

"This donation adds remarkable new information and documentation to the collection, many things that I haven't seen before," Hambright said. "Researchers and residents will all benefit."

DeWolfe, who was on hand for the Oct. 10 announcement of the donation, visited Key West in 1998 and "fell in love with the place and immediately started collecting everything he could find," Hambright said.

"I thought: What good is it doing for me to have the collection sitting in my small farmhouse in Maine?" DeWolfe said.

"I wanted from the very beginning for the material to come back to Key West. I expected it would be maybe 20 years from now. But I'm please for it to go now."

The collection includes dozens of photographs of scenes from around the island, along with an antique viewer that essentially overlaps two images to create the illusion of depth.

Hambright also pointed out an 1885 document incorporating the Key West Board of Trade that eventually became the Key West Chamber of Commerce, signed by notable city fathers William Curry and Asa Tift, among others.

Hambright said there aren't immediate plans to publicly display parts of the collection but noted that he does loan out collections to groups such as the Key West Art and Historical Society, which operates the Custom House Museum.

This report is supplemented with material from the Miami Herald.

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