Peter Anderson, the so-called secretary general of the Conch Republic, died Wednesday after a long illness. He had been undergoing treatment for cancer in Texas this year.
The Monroe County Commission, meeting in Key West at the time of his death, called for a moment of silence for his contributions to the Keys tourism industry.
"There would be no Conch Republic without Peter. He turned every party into an occasion," said Mike Mongo, who, along with Anderson, has been one of the biggest Keys boosters over the years.
Several years ago, when a group of Cuban migrants landed on a Seven Mile Bridge piling, the U.S. Coast Guard sent them back to the island nation, saying they didn't qualify for the wet-foot, dry-foot policy of getting to stay if they made it to U.S. soil. The Coast Guard said the piling isn't part of the U.S.
Anderson took a boat to the piling and, waving a loaf of stale Cuban bread, immediately declared it part of the Conch Republic since federal authorities wouldn't recognize it as part of the U.S. Not longer after, the Cubans were allowed to leave Cuba for the U.S.
The republic -- the Florida Keys -- was founded in April 1982 to protest the installation of a U.S. 1 Border Patrol checkpoint at the top of the Keys. It created miles-long traffic jams as the Border Patrol apparently was trying to ferret out illegal immigrants and drugs.
Since the federal government was treating the islands like a foreign nation, local leaders decided it would become one. They staged a ceremony seceding from the U.S., raised a quickly created Conch Republic flag, declared war on the mother country and carried it out by pelting federal agents with stale Cuban bread.
Following the 60-second skirmish, they surrendered and demanded $1 billion in foreign aid -- which still hasn't arrived.
From that, Anderson created a niche, marketing the Conch Republic with faux passports -- sometimes they were accepted by other countries. He also helped create festivals celebrating the "nation." On behalf of local officials, he often welcomed dignitaries visiting the Keys.