NOTES ON KEYS HISTORY with Brad Bertelli

Ed and Fern Butters, the final chapter

November 21, 2013 

The Fern Inn on Upper Matecumbe Key, circa 1953. (Photo courtesy of Jerry Wilkinson, Historic Preservation Society of the Upper Keys)

Ed and Fern Butters experienced the Great Miami Hurricane of 1926 and the 1929 hurricane that damaged their first hospitality endeavor, The Key Inn. When they learned of a tropical storm brewing off the coast of Cuba over the Labor Day weekend in 1935, they were not particularly alarmed.

In fact, that Sunday Captain Ed shuttered up all the larger windows of the Matecumbe Hotel, kissed his wife good-bye, and drove to Miami so that he could tend to business with wholesalers on Monday.

Everything changed Monday, though not immediately. In fact, the noon weather update led Ed to believe the storm was going to cross the Florida Straits somewhere between Cuba and Key West. A new report, however, updated at 2:30 p.m. indicated that the storm was not only blowing with gale force winds, but that the latest projections indicated that it would cross the Keys south of Key Largo.

He was a good husband and called his wife to check in. “Ed,” Fern said, “If you wish to know the truth, it is blowing like hell here.”

Captain Butters was clear, “I’m on my way.”

He climbed into his truck, drove south, and arrived at the hotel at approximately 5:30 p.m. He promptly checked to make sure the hurricane shutters were secure. Unfortunately, this was no ordinary hurricane. The Great Labor Day Hurricane of 1935 registers still as one of the most powerful hurricanes to ever strike North America. The wind picked up speed quickly. By 6 p.m., the Butters were forced to abandon the hotel and ultimately survived the killer storm inside a sight-seeing bus that had been parked beside the hotel.

The Matecumbe Hotel turned out to be one of five structures built on the Matecumbe keys not altogether scraped clean off the islands. There was not enough left of the hotel to be saved, and the building was ultimately razed. The Butters packed up what was left of their property and moved west to California, where they lived for the better part of a decade. They decided to come back to Islamorada. Upon their return, the Butters rebuilt on their Upper Matecumbe property and The Fern Inn was constructed.

More importantly, Fern resumed baking delicious desserts, especially her key lime pie, which continued to gain national notoriety. In fact, at one point a national chain restaurant offered Fern $1,500 for the rights to her dessert recipes. She declined. Fern Butters did not invent the key lime pie, but is generally considered the first person to serve it commercially.

Captain Ed Butters passed away Jan. 31, 1964. Fern decided to retire in 1967 and sold the Fern Inn to Manny and Isa Ortiz. Manny had been cooking at Sid and Roxy’s Green Turtle Inn just down the road. They renamed the restaurant Manny and Isa’s and featured Isa’s Cuban inspired home cooking.

One great admirer of Isa’s cooking was Boston Red Sox legend Ted Williams. Manny would openly credit the baseball icon’s penchant for his wife’s cooking for helping his restaurant gain the notoriety and success that it did. After word got out that Ted Williams frequently ate at Manny and Isa’s, people came just to sit in the seat Ted liked to sit in and order a Cuban sandwich, just like the great Ted Williams.

Of course people also came for Isa’s cooking, especially her key lime pie. For long time locals, in fact, Isa’s key lime pie is still remembered for its legendary deliciousness — as well it should be. As it turns out, when Fern Butters sold the property to Manny and Isa, Fern’s key lime pie recipe was part of the deal.

Manny and Isa would later abandon their original location in favor of a smaller restaurant just a little bit to the north. That building is known today as Chef Michael’s, the place for peace, love and hogfish. The building that first housed the Fern Inn and Manny and Isa’s still stands where it was originally built and borders State Road 5 (the Old Highway) just south of the Hurricane Monument.

Today it does not look quite like it did when Captain Ed and Fern built it back in the 1940s. A Mexican restaurant began operating inside the building some time after Manny and Isa left, and it was during this time that the building’s façade changed to the adobe-esque appearance it has today.

The storied property is now home to MA’s Fish Camp. While Fern and Isa have long since left the kitchen, in addition to some yummy fish tacos being served out of that historic kitchen, Barbara Cockerham is baking award-winning desserts — including some deliciously tart key lime pie.

Fern Butters was reunited with Captain Ed, the love of her life, on March 17, 1975.

Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.

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