September 5, 2018

ISLAMORADA — For Upper Keys historian Jerry Wilkinson, discovering a storage room filled with yellowed documents and fading photos can be a treasure trove.

“It’s just curiosity, I suppose,” Wilkinson said earlier this week. “Once I got into it, I never quit. Still haven’t.”

The longtime president of the Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys will be honored in a 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Sept. 10 event at the Keys History and Discovery Center, mile marker 82.1, on Upper Matecumbe Key.

The center’s Jerry Wilkinson Research Library will have its formal ribbon-cutting to mark Wilkinson’s 90th birthday.

“Jerry has spent decades of his life collecting a vast inventory of historical documents of the Keys,” center curator Brad Bertelli said. “He has graciously shared his collection for the rest of the world to see. We are richer for his efforts.”

In the interest of historical accuracy, Wilkinson did note one clarification: his actual birthday was Sept. 1.

Wilkinson said he’s happy to have his archives, one of the center’s three premier collections, “protected from weather and fire.”

The other major libraries are from the late Jim Clupper, a former Islamorada librarian and an expert on the very early Keys history, and Willie Drye, author of “Storm of the Century: The Labor Day Hurricane of 1935.”

A Central Florida native, Wilkinson first moved to the Florida Keys in 1947 to open a portable rollerskating rink. When a storm destroyed the rink tent, he got on his motorcycle and headed to Key West. He soon joined the Army Air Corps shortly before it became the U.S. Air Force and served 23 years.

“The service took me everywhere but the Florida Keys,” he said.

After operating businesses in Miami, he moved to Key Largo in 1972.

“I’ve always been interested in the history of places I lived, like Colorado and Arizona,” he said.

As a volunteer correspondent for the Florida Keys Free Press during its early years, Wilkinson was recruited to write about Planter, an early Upper Keys community now better known as Tavernier.

In the course of his research, he met people like “K” Wilkinson (no relation), who joined her scientist husband a while living in a tent on an Upper Keys beach in the 1930s, and descendants of Keys pioneer families like the Alburys, Russells, Pinders and Johnsons.

With the help of wife Mary Lou, Wilkinson “really got serious about collecting in 1991.”

A meeting with Homestead farmer Bill Krome, son of Henry Flagler’s building engineer William J. Krome, led Wilkinson to a room filled with Florida East Coast Railway records and diaries.

Wilkinson copied them all. “I couldn’t turn it down and didn’t want to,” he said.

He devoted untold hours to making photographic copies of aging and delicate Keys photographs.

Often recruited for history talks, Wilkinson occasionally enlivens the events by appearing in character as Keys notables Henry Flagler, Zane Grey, Henry Perrine and others.

Those interested in the Sept. 10 event are advised to make reservations by emailing to info@keysdiscovery.com; or 305-922-2237. The Keys History and Discovery Center is on the grounds of the Islander Resort.

kwadlow@keysnews.com