KEY WEST, Fla. – The 40th anniversary celebration of the Florida Keys’ symbolic secession from the United States, motivated by a 1982 U.S. Border Patrol checkpoint established on the only road connecting the Keys with mainland Florida, has begun in Key West.
The 10-day Conch Republic Independence Celebration kicked off Friday with a waterfront ceremony at the island city’s Mallory Square.
The offbeat republic was born April 23, 1982, shortly after a Border Patrol checkpoint was erected at the top of the Florida Keys Overseas Highway, the lower end of U.S. Highway 1. Agents ostensibly searched departing cars for drugs and other contraband. The obstacle created a miles-long traffic jam that enraged Keys officials, visitors and residents.
After appeals to remove the roadblock were denied by federal officials, Key West’s then-mayor Dennis Wardlow led local leaders in staging the tongue-in-cheek secession, proclaiming the independent Conch Republic and raising its royal blue flag.
“We made the announcement that if we’re going to be treated as a foreign country, then we will become a foreign country,” said Wardlow, who was named the republic’s first “prime minister.”
The roadblock was subsequently removed, and the eccentric “nation” is now internationally recognized as the Florida Keys’ irreverent alter ego.
“It’s been 40 years, and the people are still supporting the republic,” Wardlow said after Friday’s ceremony. “And the government has not put up any border checkpoints, and they haven’t messed with us.”
Festivities will continue through April 24 with events including a pirates’ ball, a wacky drag queen footrace and a sailing regatta that recalls the Keys’ seafaring heritage.