Keys Homes
Sunday, April 22, 2012
Historian retells West Martello Tower's past for resident Garden Club

By ROBIN ROBINSON Key West Garden Club

Noted Monroe County historian Tom Hambright spoke to the Key West Garden Club about the history of its home, the West Martello Tower on Atlantic Boulevard.

In the War of 1812, Britain burned Washington, D.C., to the ground. That prompted the U.S. government to establish a series of forts down the eastern coast and into the Gulf of Mexico to create a coastal defense system. At the southernmost tip of the line of forts were those protecting the entrance to the Gulf, later named Fort Jefferson and Fort Zachary Taylor.

These two major forts needed support units to protect their rear. There were to be four installations: Fleming Key, Stock Island and the East and West martello towers. Only the latter two were built and finished before the Civil War.

There are lots of stories about how the West Martello got damaged, all of them false. It was not shot at from Fort Zachary Taylor, as the guns face the opposite direction. It was not shot at by the USS Spruance (the first) as it would have been firing into a populated area and the waters are too shallow to navigate. Bricks were not cleaned and carted off by locals to create their sidewalks. According to Hambright's records, in the 1890s, the military ordered the bricks to be used to fill the empty gun rooms on the first floor of Fort Zachary Taylor. This would reinforce the masonry walls and make their support strong enough to withstand attack by the new, rifled artillery.

The partial destruction of the East Martello Tower did not stop the military from using the forts in both world wars. In 1906, a gun battery was built in the West Martello Tower and named after Capt. Shadrack Inman, a Georgia militia soldier killed in the Revolutionary War's Battle of Musgrove Mill in South Carolina. There were no guns installed in the battery until World War I. Modern anti-aircraft guns were put in the citadel in World War II.

The pavilions at Higgs Beach and White Street were also World War II batteries. The U.S. military closed them after the war and gave the land to Monroe County.

The Garden Club has been active in Key West since the Works Progress Administration (WPA) tried to make the bankrupt Key West into a tourist town. High on the list of events was the flower show featuring Key West's fecund flora.

In 1934, the "Key West in Transition Guide Book" listed the first flower show organized by the gardeners in the Key West Woman's Club, led by Jessie Porter Newton. "Southern Swill Punch heavily laced with rum ..." was noted as being served in the newspaper account of the event.

In 1935, the Week of Joy touted the flower show, located on the spot where Duval Square is now. It was accompanied by a production of "The Pirates of Penzance" -- and maybe more punch.

The Garden Club, which had closed during the war, did not regroup until after it had ended. The 1952 flower show was held in the Elks Club, where the Hard Rock Café is now. In that show, men were not allowed to work with the flowers, only vegetables. Historic photographs show several servicemen dutifully working. Lavish pictures appeared in National Geographic Magazine that year touting the wonders of Key West's subtropical garden climate and featuring local beauties.

Joe Allen, a state representative, powerful politician and history advocate, was convinced the Garden Club could preserve what was left of the West Martello Tower. The club should turn it into a tourist attraction, he thought, instead of razing what was an eyesore on the beach.

In 1960, Life Magazine took note of the flower show, and the Garden Club was in the big-time. But by 1961, rancor in the ranks of members who were divided over artistic flower shows and standard-rule flower shows drove President Emily Goddard to resign.

Gene Otto won the artistic battle. He also designed and built the current meeting room out of Dade County pine salvaged from the 1886 fire in the Jefferson Hotel. If anything bad happened in that meeting room, Otto could blame it on Robert the Doll.

Under Merili McCoy, the Garden Club began to win top state awards. In 1976, the fort was listed on the National Register of Historic Buildings. Currently, the garden attracts between 5,000 and 6,000 visitors a month.

Garden notes

$25 tickets are available for the Key West Garden Club's spring luncheon from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. May 6 at Square One Restaurant in Duval Square. Contact Donna Froelich at 305-294-5136.

The Key West Garden Club welcomes volunteers to pull weeds, learn to propagate plants and play in the sandy soil at the West Martello Tower from 9 a.m. to noon on Mondays.

Key West Garden Club Master Gardener Robin Robinson was a columnist at the Chicago Daily News and syndicated with Princeton Features. Her books,. "Plants of Paradise" and "Roots, Rocks and Rain: Native Trees of the Florida Keys," can be found at the Key West Garden Club and on Visit for more information. This column is part of a series developed by the Key West Garden Club. Visit for more information.

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