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Weird Festivities in Florida's Crazy Keys

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Isolation can cause people to go a little stir crazy. That’s the only logical explanation for the Florida Keys. For our last Florida entry of the Strange States series, let’s take a look at some of the fun, but slightly off-kilter, festivities that can be had on the islands.   

The Conch Republic Rebellion

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When you get off the plane at the Key West International Airport, don’t be confused by the sign that reads, “Welcome to the Conch Republic.”  No, you didn’t get on the wrong flight, but you might be surprised you’re (in a way) no longer in the United States.

In April 1982, the U.S. Border Patrol set up a roadblock and inspection point just north of the Keys on U.S. Route 1, the main highway that connects the islands to the mainland. The Patrol stopped every car, searching for drugs and illegal immigrants, both of which were said to be smuggled into the country on the highway. The roadblock was a huge inconvenience, causing traffic jams that spanned miles, and seriously impacted the tourism that the Keys so heavily relied upon. 

The City Council of Key West attempted to have the roadblock removed, but to no avail. And so, since the roadblock was essentially creating a new American border north of the Keys, the Council—with tongue planted firmly in cheek—declared the islands an independent country on April 23. Since the residents of the Keys often called themselves “Conchs,” the newly established sovereignty became known as The Conch Republic, with the motto “We Seceded Where Others Failed.”

After their secession, the Conch Republic declared war on the United States by hitting a man dressed in a Navy uniform with a piece of stale Cuban bread. A few moments after this horrific sign of aggression, the Republic officially surrendered to the same Naval officer, and then asked for $1 billion in foreign aid (their request was denied). The event, even in jest, caused such a worldwide media stir that the roadblock was soon removed. 

Always looking for a way to promote tourism in the Keys, you’ll find Conch Republic memorabilia in every souvenir shop on the islands. Trinkets include Conch Republic flags, t-shirts, passports, and even coins, which are accepted currency in some local businesses. In addition, to honor their brief taste of freedom, the people of Key West set aside 10 days every April to celebrate their independence with a huge festival filled with parties, the “World’s Longest Parade” down U.S. 1, as well as the “World’s Longest Bar Stroll,” a pub crawl that goes from the Atlantic to the Gulf in one afternoon. 

Underwater Music Festival

Unless you’re a little mermaid who wishes she could be part of someone else’s world, chances are listening to music underwater just sounds like a muffled mess. But that hasn’t stopped music-loving divers from gathering every July for 29 years at the Looe Key Reef to be a part of the Lower Keys Underwater Music Festival.

So how does one even hold a submerged music festival? Boats floating on the surface lower specially-designed speakers into the water and blast out tunes played by WWUS 104.1FM, a local radio station. The music usually has a nautical theme—The Beatles’ Yellow Submarine is always on the playlist—but they also play more unusual fare, like blue whale songs. But the highlight of the show is the tribute performance to a real singer or band, featuring divers pretending to play handmade instruments like a “manta-lin,” a “clam-bourine,” or a “trom-bonefish.”  This year the headlining “band” was the Rolling Crab Stones, starring “Mick Jawfish” and “Keith Pilchard,” singing their hits “Jumping Jack Fish” and “HonkyConch Woman.” 

Although it’s all in good fun, the festival also promotes an environmental message. Throughout the show, PSAs educate divers about the importance of protecting the Florida Key Reef System, the only living coral reef in North America.       

FantasyFest

If the only time you can take a vacation is in the fall, Key West has you covered with FantasyFest, which is like a Halloween costume party, Mardi Gras, and Gay Pride Parade all rolled into one.

For 10 days in October, the streets of Key West are flooded with ghouls, vampires, zombies, and ghosts in numerous, family-friendly, costumed parades, 5K races, and outdoor festivals. But you can also leave the kids at home and head to more risque events like the Tighty Whitey Party starring the Men of Labare (as seen in Magic Mike), or the Wild, Wild, Key West Party where cowboy boots and hats are among the only suggested attire. You could also hit up the ABC (Anything But Clothes) Party, stop by the Dungeon of Dark Secrets and Fetishes, and frolic in the pool, hot tub, or dance floor full of foam at the Bourbon St. Pub Adult Entertainment Complex. 

Now those are some vacation photos your friends will want to see...

Sundown Celebration

If you can’t make it to one of the other Key West fests, it’s not a problem, because there is literally a festival every day of the year—the Sunset Celebration at Mallory Square Dock.

The Sunset Celebration began in the 1960s as an unorganized gathering of about 40 hippies who would take a hit of LSD, then head down to the docks to watch the sunset every night. As word of the tradition got out, entrepreneurial sorts set up temporary booths on the pier to sell jewelry, t-shirts, and other handmade goods, before disappearing as the crowd dispersed after dark.

By 1984, the nightly farewell to the sun had become a hip social scene, and bigger crowds meant more vendors. When nearby businesses began to complain about the pierside booths, the City of Key West threatened to shut the whole thing down. In response, a small cadre of artists formed a non-profit group called the Key West Cultural Preservation Society in order to legitimize the nightly festival and help keep it alive.

Today, you can still find plenty of artists selling paintings, sculptures, and jewelry every night on the pier. But you can also watch entertaining acts like Dominique the Catman and his specially-trained “flying house cats,” who jump through hoops and perform other tricks for the crowds. Or there’s Will Soto, one of the founding members of the Cultural Preservation Society, who’s been performing death-defying high wire juggling acts for over 20 years. You might also catch Dale the Sword Swallower, Mark Riggs, who juggles fire atop a 10-foot “Suicycle of Death” unicycle, straight jacket escape artist Casey Moore, Dennis Riley “The Southernmost Bagpiper,” and Checkers Mallory, a guy who runs around in a checkerboard head-to-toe bodysuit doing...something.  No matter what your interests, there’s something for you at the Sundown Celebration, making it a can’t-miss event if you visit the Keys.

And that's a wrap on Florida ... for now! Check out all entries in the Strange States series here.

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Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Is This the Most Mysterious Grave in Virginia?
Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0
Boston Public Library, Wikimedia Commons // CC BY 2.0

In 1816, local legend has it that a ship dropped off an unknown couple in Alexandria, Virginia. The woman was extremely ill, possibly from typhoid fever, and couldn’t wait until their final destination to receive medical attention.

Alas, it was too late; she died a few weeks later while boarding at Gadsby’s Tavern. No one had spoken to her or, some say, even seen her face—any time anyone saw her, her features were hidden by a long, black veil. Her husband quickly arranged for a burial at St. Paul’s Cemetery, then borrowed money for a headstone from a local merchant named Lawrence Hill.

Under the circumstances, you might think the mysterious man would keep the epitaph simple, resulting in a more affordable stone and a smaller loan to repay. Instead, he went the opposite route, having a huge marker etched with this wordy tribute:

“To the memory of a Female Stranger, whose mortal sufferings terminated on the 14th day of October, 1816 Aged 23 years and 8 months. This stone is placed here by her disconsolate husband in whose arms she sighed out her latest breath, and who under God did his utmost even to soothe the cold dead ear of death."

It was followed by some verses adapted from Alexander Pope and a Bible quote, adding even more to the bill. The man spared no expense, and it’s no wonder—he apparently had no intention of paying back the loan. The female stranger’s husband skipped town without paying doctor bills, lodging bills, or funeral and burial fees (he did leave behind some currency, but it was forged). And when he left, he took more than his wallet with him—he also took his wife’s identity.

Rumors ran rampant, even 70 years later: In 1886, the Lawrence Gazette reported on several theories, including the popular notion that the woman was really Theodosia Burr Alston, the daughter of Aaron Burr. Alston had been lost at sea around 1812, but conspiracy theorists speculated that she faked her disappearance to escape a loveless marriage. “Why the stranger’s husband would permit no one to see her face after she was dead gives rise to the supposition that he may have feared its recognition by those who looked upon it,” the Gazette said.

Outlandish? Perhaps. But even more so is the tale that the woman was actually a man—Napoleon Bonaparte dressed in drag, to be exact, attempting to escape his exile.

Yet another story declared the woman was named Blanche Fordan, and the man claiming to be her husband had actually hypnotized her into marrying him, though she really loved another.

Sadly, if you're looking for answers, you're going to be disappointed—we still don't have any. The female stranger remains as mysterious today as she was 200 years ago, although her grave has since become a local tourist attraction.

The Greenbrier Bunker of West Virginia

If you want to learn about someplace, you can always pick up a textbook. But if you want to get to know a place, you're going to have to dig a little deeper. And what you find there might be a little strange. The Strange States series will take you on a virtual tour of America to uncover the unusual people, places, things, and events that make this country such a unique place to call home. This week, we head to West Virginia, the home of Star Wars VII co-writer, Lawrence Kasdan, Barney Fife himself, Don Knotts, and Morgan Spurlock, the guy who ate nothing but McDonald’s for 30 days. 

The Greenbrier Bunker of West Virginia

Nestled in the mountains of southeast West Virginia is White Sulphur Springs, a small town of just over 2000 people. The main attraction in White Sulphur Springs is The Greenbrier, a 157-year-old hotel for the rich and famous, with amenities like five golf courses, a casino, tennis courts, spa treatments—and a secret underground bunker built to provide a safe haven for the Legislative Branch of the U.S. Government in the event of all-out nuclear war.

Built between 1958 and 1962, under a covert project codenamed “Greek Island,” the two-story, 153-room, 112,554-square foot reinforced concrete bunker was built into a hillside around 60 feet under the West Virginia Wing of the hotel.  While it was never used as a secure location for Congress as intended, it was held at-the-ready until 1992, with 75,000 gallons of water reserves, and over 40,000 gallons of diesel fuel to run three generators that could power the facility if the main electrical grid went down. A large air conditioning unit kept the air contaminant-free and an incinerator would have been used to dispose of garbage and biological waste.

As technology advanced in the ensuing years, new equipment was brought in and installed. To keep the bunker at such a ready state, it was staffed 24/7 for 30 years by a team of government employees operating under the guise of TV repairmen for the hotel.

In order for the government to continue working after the evacuation of Washington D.C. in the event of nuclear war, the bunker was built with a professional studio for radio and television broadcasts, complete with a variety of background photos that gave the impression the speaker was still in Washington.

In addition, the House of Representatives and the Senate each had separate meeting rooms, as well as a large hall for joint assemblies. These conference rooms were hidden in plain sight—they could be booked by hotel guests for special events, under the belief that the rooms were just part of the West Virginia Wing. Little did they know there were secret wall panels that concealed blast doors as large as 18 tons that led to the rest of the compound. 

To accommodate the 1100 people that could potentially live there, bunk beds were installed in 18 dormitories, and a fully-stocked cafeteria was prepared to make meals for up to 60 days. If more food was needed, thousands of military-grade Meals Ready to Eat (MREs) were stocked along the 430-foot tunnel that led into the facility from the main entrance. Complete medical facilities were on-site, including an operating room, ICU, and an infirmary that could hold 14 people, all manned by a staff of 35.  

Every one of the four entrances to the bunker was protected by a set of blast doors, including the largest that was 12 feet by 15 feet of steel and concrete, and weighed 28 tons. However, the door was so well-balanced on its 1.5-ton hinges that it could be opened and closed by a single person.

Although the bunker remained secret for 30 years, there were whispers of its existence around White Sulphur Springs and among the staff at the hotel. Contractors involved in the construction were suspicious of the 50,000 tons of concrete that were poured at the site, and workers remember the blast doors being installed, but no one could ever confirm just what they were building. Many told their story, but it wasn’t until May 1992 when reporter Ted Gup of The Washington Post wrote about the Greenbrier Bunker that these stories were given legitimacy. Shortly after Gup’s story was published, the U.S. Government verified the existence of the bunker—then promptly shut it down. By July 1995, the facility had been turned over to the hotel, which now offers daily tours of the bunker for its guests. 

Peruse the whole Strange States series here.

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