History of Sugarloaf Key
By Jerry Wilkinson
Not much is
the pre-Columbian history of Sugarloaf Key. There is
a huge Native American Indian kitchen midden in the general area of
high school indicating pre-Columbian inhabitation. Habitation was
not as permanent as we think of today, but more as temporary fishing or
The area was
by William Sterling Baker and ownership passed on to Mr. B. C. Hopeman
in the 1940s then to the Howe family. Later Bob and Viola Howe found an
unidentified shipwreck in the process of dredging a channel. The area
first developed in the 1960s.
The serious Lower
buff should refer to writings of John Viele, Historical
Society member and local Cudjoe Key author of three Pineapple Press
(The Perilous Florida Straits, The Pioneers and The Wreckers) and
newspaper articles, primarily the Island Navigator.
Sugarloaf Key was
in the name department on early maps. The eccentric British
DeBrahm named it Glen Kay in 1772 which is not bad for DeBrahm. DeBrahm
visited many of the Florida Keys; however, when he needed a name he
most of them English names. Windley Key was Wright Kay, Tea Table Key
Boys Key and Plantation Key was Bull Island. For the better established
names he did better i.e., Key West was Hueso and Lower Matecumbe was La
Vieja: however, he was thorough. He did name Keys that many of the
of 1700s period passed by without a name.
Sugarloaf Key is located about MM
20 between Cudjoe Key and Saddlebunch Keys. If you are not familiar
the Lower Florida Keys you may see a basic map by clicking
HERE. If driving south, you cross onto the island after
Bow Channel and if you turn left you will be on old state road 4-A
towards the once popular Pirates Cove Resort. If you are traveling
south and turn right where
see the small airplane (June 2001) you will be entering the once
community of Chase and Perky. The Perky Bat tower is about MM 17,
then NNW (Gulfside) for a half mile
off of highway US-1 then slightly off to your right.
To visit this area from the mainland before
1912 sea travel was used, after which in 1912 rail travel was also
Vehicle travel became available in 1928 via State Road 4A and ferry
From Florida City one would drive over the wooden Card Sound Bridge
Key Largo and on to lower Lower Matecumbe Key. There a ferry boat would
transport you to No Name Key for the drive to Key West passing
Key on the road just mentioned. During the trip, one crossed the
twice. First on Upper Matecumbe Key at about MM 81 and remained on the
right side going south until crossing the railroad again just after
Sugarloaf Key. Most of the old highway bridges from this point on to
West have been removed. In 1942, the Pirates Cove route was bypassed
the U.S. Navy shortened the travel distance by following the F.E.C.
route, the same route as today. The railroad ceased operation after the
1935 hurricane destroyed
about 40 miles on track in the Upper Keys. In passing, the Card Sound
in the Upper Keys was also bypassed by following the railroad route via
the so-called 18-mile stretch. About 14 miles were saved from Key West
to Florida City in 1942. The Navy used federal funds, hence the name
The first recorded
settler actually living on Sugarloaf Key that the author found in the
West library was Asa Gilbert in 1829. In the Territorial Court
in the Key West Library are records that Asa Gilbert of Sugarloaf Key
not appear for a jury summons in 1829. He explained to the court that
did not have a boat and produced a witness to substantiate his
As now, jury summons were serious and also a huge problem at that time.
Fort Myers was a northwestern community of then Monroe County and
to Key West for jury duty was a lot to be expected.
Asa's presence is
by the 1830 census; however, for Monroe and Dade Counties the 1830 and
40 censuses only showed the head of the household, which Asa was head
a family of one, and the age groups. Asa was in the 50 to 60 year age
He was not found in the 1840 census for Monroe County. I also checked
County just to make certain he had not moved. Remember in 1836 all the
Keys north of Bahia Honda were in Dade County. These census reports are
generally available on microfilm at your library, or can be purchased
the author did.
The 1850 census
males residing on Sugarloaf Key. They were Jonathon Thompson, age 60,
planter; James Anderson, age 70, mariner and Robert Johnson, age 23,
Jonathon Thompson was known as "Happy Jack" after whom there is a small
Key, Happy Jack Key, nearby named.
According to a Putnam
article, Happy Jack was one of a group of men who wandered throughout
Keys living wherever and however they were able. Others of the
were Paddy Whack, Jolly Whack, Red Jim, Lame Bill, and Old Gilbert.
possibility, Old Gilbert was the aforementioned Asa Gilbert.
on ". . . However different their names and varying dispositions, they
all united in a common love. The fragrant goddess of whiskey absorbed
affections of their guileless hearts. . . . Jack was always disinclined
to the world, and Key West probably did not elevate his opinion of
nature. So he settled himself permanently on the key [Sugarloaf Key] we
have just described and bent his energies to trapping deer and raising
fruit. He is still alive , and likely to live. His solitude is
so uncompromising as Robinson Crusoe's, for the crowds of spongers and
fishermen that swarm around all the keys give him sufficient company,
more than he deserves."
Happy Jack died less
years after the article of wounds after tripping a anti-deer gun while
he was out walking. Local deer had been a problem to farming on the
Keys and trip wire guns had been rigged along the paths of the deer.
Jack's farm was on Bow Channel and north of the SR-4A and the railroad
The 1860 census
one person, a Daniel Dennis, age 55. occupation sail maker from North
Sail making was probably his skill; however, farming and/or fishing
be more probably. Of course, Happy Jack was no longer with us.
The 1870 census
population explosion. A total of 37 people divided as follows: 17
8 seamen, 6 keeping house, 2 wood cutters, 2 laborers, 1 farmer and 1
Probably the demand for food in Key West during the Civil War generated
this increased population. Key West was a major Gulf Blockading Port
the Union and whose relatively rapid population increase considering
physical size would continue until 1890. Early permanent island
in unincorporated Monroe County were difficult to find. This is
by the Johnson family who represented one third of the 1870 population,
but 10 years earlier were farming on Cudjoe Key.
Sugarloaf Key was Dr. J. Vining Harris (MD), Confederate veteran,
resident of Key West, later Superintendent of the Monroe County School
Board and namesake of Harris School in Key West. Harris was
also the builder of the Southermost House on Duval Street at Key West.
Dr. Harris's farming
were well known in Key West in the late 1890s; however, there is no
of him ever shipping a product. In 1897, Dr. Harris added a new element
to his farm - sponge cultivation. According to John Viele's The
Keys, A History of the Pioneers, about 1901, he turned over the use
of his property, and the house he had built, to Dr. F. H. Moore, head
the U.S. Department of Fisheries to continue the experiment." As far as
we know good reports were the only export.
In 1905, Henry
that he would construct an extension of his Florida East Coast
Railway from Homestead, Florida to Key West. To do this he established
work camps throughout the Keys. From an unknown newspaper articles, but
hand dated 1906, "At present there are 12 camps. No. 80 is on Big Pine
Key. No. 81 on Summerland Key and No. 82 at Key West. About 100 negroes
are employed in grubbing and butting out the undergrowth preparatory to
constructing the road bed. These men have separate camps and buy their
supplies at from the commissary: many have their families with them to
do the cooking."
It appears that that
was the next to user of Sugarloaf Key. The records are not complete;
it appears that the railroad only leased the Harris house. The author
little written about the railroad's use of Sugarloaf in the newspapers.
In fact, Dr. Harris is found treating the sick and injured at Knight's
Key and Key West more than any place else.
One of the next
Key residents were Charles and George Chase. Charles Chase with wife,
visited Key West in the summer of 1899 with a play that he had written,
then visited again in 1906. On a later visit to Key West, he met Dr.
and became intrigued with sponge cultivation. In 1910, he and brother
plus a group of English investors, established the Florida Keys Sponge
and Fruit (FKSF) Company.
were gathered to construct a community to cultivate and harvest sponges
and fruit - an estimated 60 workers. A mini-town plus all the
for the sponge cultivation process slowly was built with most materials
shipped being in. The old Dr. Harris house was enlarged for the Chase
- Hettie plus 24 year-old son and 14 year-old niece. Finally, a
was in progress in the Lower Keys other than Key West.
For the reader who wishes to
see and read more about the Charles Chase and his quest to grow sponges
HERE and use the back arrow to return.
The town grew, the railroad
passed by the front, a post office of Chase, Florida established and
outlook was good. The depot was at Mile Post 506, meaning 506 miles
A decision was made
the three year old sponges, divide them into 10 separate pieces and
as 10 new cultures. This would yield about one million sponges a year.
Finances were low so in the summer of 1914 George and Charles went to
to raise additional funds. They succeeded in obtaining commitments, but
before the funds were actually collected, Britain declared war on
and promptly froze all funds. This late timing of a few months cost
the needed funds and all was lost. The Chase brothers returned to the
and found Americans investors who were more interested in real estate
sponges. The venture had failed.
One of these real
was Richter Clyde Perky of Denver, but at the time of Miami, who later
took the bankrupt FKSF company off the hands of Chase who had by then
in Key West. Perky was also interested in sponge cultivation, but was
fast to proceed. The 1920s the Florida Land Boom was booming and Perky
saw Sugarloaf as a vacation paradise. He also had real estate
in the Upper Keys. In the meanwhile, he hired Fred Johnson of Key West
as superintendent to continue the sponge experiments. State Road 4-A
a reality in 1928, but the road passed three miles away on the southern
shore. He subsidized Monroe County to build a road (today called
Boulevard) to connect his paradise with the highway. Key West would be
about 20 driving miles distance. The railroad depot was changed to
his big problem. He knew of oil derricks from his oil interests in
so he had Fred build him a tower. It is about 30 feet high and has four
shingled sides of about 12 feet each standing on concrete pillars as
shown in the image at
the top-right of this page. There is a crudely etched inscription
at the base stating: "Dedicated to good health at Perky, Fla., by Mr.
and Mrs. R.C. Perky, March 15, 1929." Most of the bat tower's history
is antedotal with little documentation other than this inscription.
Perky got the plans from a Dr. Charles
of San Antonio Texas who allegedly had seven bat towers in Texas. Later
Johnson, who called it the "bat motel" said there were bats in the
Keys at that time.
The author calls it the Keys first condo. Perky also purchased secret
$500 (prices range up to $1000)
of sex-scented bat guano from Dr. Campbell. Johnson said the smell was
awful and we stayed away from there and so did the bats. In the aerial
photo below the bat tower is barely visible in the upper right corner
The lodge was to the left of the tidal pool for swimming and the pier.
The present land strip is to the far right and the bat tower stands
There is an unsupported story that
in 1,000 bats from New Jersey along with a caretaker named Plutonium
The story goes that the Key West High school band awaited the bats to
at sunset. Anyway, at sunset the bats awoke, flew off and never
Johnson would not support that or any other story other than that of
foul odor. One problem would have been fresh water for the bats.
Mosquitoes or not, the
opened in March 1939. Its days were numbered as the following year
died at the age of 62. The Perky Lodge closed in 1940 and three years
in 1943 the lodge and Fred Johnson's house burned.
During this same
Irving Wright, an attorney from San Francisco, CA purchased the James
Johnson ocean side property. With the ferryboats and the highway
opening in 1928, in 1929
Wright began his venture of the Pirates Cove Fishing Camp. The timing
right as the first Overseas Highway ran right through the southern edge
of the property. In the accompanying photo one can see the railroad and
the highway bridges in the background.
The Saturday Evening
an illustrated bonefishing article featuring Charles Francis Coe in the
September 13, 1930 issue and further advertising was hardly necessary.
It had an 18 room lodge, private cabins and an electric power plant.
not roughing it advertised where women could enjoy comfort and luxury
their husbands brought in the fish.
Irving Wright died in December 1932;
however, his wife held the property for soem time. The
hurricane of 1948 took its toll of the structures. Most of the
buildings were hauled away and the lodge converted into a private
On Sugarloaf Key the
could ne contrasted with when Ernest Perez decided to raise hogs on a
of the old Sterling Baker homestead. Perez had tried grazing cattle on
Big Pine Key earlier but the mosquitoes and flies crippled his herd.
were not troubled by these insects and an excellent market was close by
with the Cuban population in Key West. Judge H. Padgett joined Perez on
a 50 - 50 partnership and soon there were more than they could count.
one reason, they ran free as in open range.
Another famous Sugarloaf Lodge
was the lodge that carried its name. Sugarloaf
Key became a resort for ailing millionaires a get away place. Key West
was close enough for medical attention and supplies and the fishing
not be excelled. The lodge burned in 1950.
Throughout the Keys the end of World
War II brought about a new American mobility. Adventuresome northerners
sought new horizons and Sugarloaf was not to be spared. In 1951 huge
moving equipment appeared in the form of a 12- cubic yard Rimersburg
Company drag line. Sugarloaf Shores was about to be born.
The Radford, Robert
Crane family were involved in the development of John Pennekamp State
on Key Largo and more directly with Sugarloaf Key. El Radabob Key is
after the family. Rad for Radford and bob for Robert.
manifested itself with a grocery store, service station and
with conspicuous sign "Rimersburg Coal Co." The coal company was a
coal strip mining operation which naturally had huge drag lines for
of overburden and coal. Houses were first constructed in
A and B, then a post office and telephone. By 1961 the new Sugar Loaf
was built near the former Perky Lodge. In 1968 residents had to take a
hard stand by submitting a four-page petition to pave the roads to
Fire has destroyed
the Keys historic structures and the volunteer Sugarloaf Volunteer Fire
Department (SVFD) was organized in 1966 located at MM 17. Rimersburg
Coal Co. sold them the land for $10 and subsequently an additional lot
for $10. The building was enlarged in 1980. Through the years it
has provided primary and mutual aid to surrounding communities.
Mangrove Mama's at about
MM-20, gulfside, date back to early OSH restaurants, albeit has
undergone many modifications. The Indian Mound development on the
gulfside also has some slightly later surviving frame buildings.
For a successful
schools and churches are an integral part. The Sugarloaf School K - 12
in 1968 and hence a new high school. Spiritual guidance is provided by
the Sugarloaf Baptist Church on Crane Boulevard.
documentation and photographs are requested for enhancement of this web
page and other Lower Keys pages presently under construction.
email@example.com or 852-1620)
Time marches on.
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