Thursday, February 28, 2013

Local History - It's Everywhere

Our posts from articles in Sutton Life Magazine have been mostly about local Sutton area history. This article makes an obvious point, every place has its own local history. A recent visit to Key West, Florida reminded me that if we do not look into the local history as we travel, we will miss out on the personality of a locality and much of the joy of travel.

Local museums and landmarks are easy to find but the real stuff may take a bit of effort. I knew that Ernest Hemingway had lived briefly in Key West and did some of his better writing there, including A Farewell to Arms. I prepared for the trip by investing a few minutes of research into the Key West-Hemingway connection.

Ernest Hemingway lived in Key West for ten years starting in 1928 though he was still flitting about the world: Paris, Cuba, East Africa and, yes, Kansas City and he spent several summers in Wyoming during his Key West years.

Two Key West locations attracted me: his home and his favorite bar. The home is one of the prime tourist attractions of the town. A rich uncle of Hemingway’s second wife Pauline bought the house for them. It had been the grandest home in town when built by an early shipwreck scavenger who became the wealthiest man around but the house had been vacant for some time and became a project of Ernest and Pauline, mainly Pauline.

After their divorce, Ernest’s second of three, Pauline remained in the house; it became part of her estate and was purchased by a family that continues to own it today after turning the house and grounds into a classy attraction.

The T-shirt is a big part of any tourist attraction. Capt. Tony's Saloon
continues to tout its 1930's Hemingway connection.
Hemingway’s favorite bar during his stay on the island was called Sloppy Joe’s. There is a Sloppy Joe’s bar in Key West today which competes for the Hemingway folklore but it is a later incarnation. The original Sloppy Joe’s at 428 Greene Street is now called Capt. Tony’s Saloon, a large rustic, even crude room, bar in the middle with walls and ceiling decorated with thousands of notes, personal items and at least two hundred brassieres, many autographed. (An estimate, I really didn’t count them. Maybe next time.)

A bit or research uncovered a rich history for the Greene Street building. It was an ice house (and city morgue) – hence today’s wide doors that accommodated horse drawn ice wagons. In the 1890’s the building was a wireless telegraph station where news of the sinking of the battleship Maine was first received and relayed to the mainland.

The building next became a cigar factory, a bordello, a major gambling venue and a string of speakeasies.

In April, 1928 Ernest Hemingway walked into the establishment with a $1000 royalty check that the local bank had refused to cash. Josie Russell, owner of the bar cashed the check and the two men became fast friends and long-time fishing buddies. Hemingway’s notoriety made Sloppy Joe’s one of the most successful bars among the many in Key West.  

The landlord raised the rent $1 a week in 1938 angering Russell and he moved Sloppy Joe’s to its present location.

Fast forward to 1958 when Tony Tarracino created today’s Capt. Tony’s Saloon.

Tarracino was a colorful fellow himself starting when he helped his bootlegger father make whiskey in New Jersey. He and his brother found that he could intercept signals from a race track getting race results before local bookies – a profitable business model right up until one bookie took action resulting to Tony waking up in a dump after being unconscious for two days following a beating. He headed for Hialeah, Florida where gambling luck was not-so-good. He lost everything including his pick Cadillac before hitching a ride to Key West on a milk truck with $18 in his pocket.

The building as 428 Greene had its own share of notoriety during Tony Tarracino’s tenure. Literary connections continued with Tennessee Williams and Truman Capote, Harry Truman (who had a vacation White House in Key West) and John Kennedy provided a political flavor while Elizabeth Taylor and Robert Frost were also regulars. Jimmy Buffett performed at Capt. Tony’s early in his career and dedicated a song and album to the place. That story is told here:  Buffett is the current Key West celebrity though he’s never been mayor as Tony Tarracino was.

If I had a bucket list I’d have checked off one of the items on this trip: having one of Hemingway’s favorite drinks while reading one of his works in his favorite bar (recent Facebook profile pic). Hemingway had several “favorite” drinks. The bar goes with cheap scotch (Teacher’s) and water. I was interested in two others – a rum thing and “Death in the Afternoon.” The barkeep knew of the former but had never heard of the DITA. I showed him the Wikipedia entry on my phone and he vowed to market the thing. (it does not come well recommended)

Just a cat on a fence if you don't know the historical background. This
regal feline is named Hairy Truman.
Hemingway’s house also has an extensive history. A well-known attraction of the tour is the result of a gift Hemingway received – a six-toed cat named Snowball. The author liked cats and accumulated several. Today there are 45 cats on the property, about half with six toes. Docents call each by name and they are a big part of the tour.

There is at least one interesting physical connection between the old Sloppy Joe’s bar and the Hemingway house. Hemingway and several friends were at Sloppy Joe’s the night Russell was closing before making the move to the second Sloppy Joe’s location. As the night wore on the clientele decided to make a statement to the owner and began to tear out bar stools and throw them in the street. Someone said that they should strip the place of everything but the urinal. Hemingway said that he’d … how should I put this … “he’d sent a fortune down that thing.” Hemingway ripped the urinal out, carried it home and threw it in the yard.
The attractive and stylish cat watering
trough at Hemingway's House in Key West,
Florida - an olive jar Ernest and Pauline found in
Cuba and the urinal from Sloppy Joe's.
Ain't history fun?

Pauline found the relic offensive; she’d tired of Ernest’s antics by then and the marriage was crumbling. A workman tiled the fixture and paired it with a large olive jar the Hemingway’s had found in Cuba. Pauline kept the attractive art piece and today it is the main water bowl for those 45 cats.

So, I hope you get the idea. Local history is everywhere and a little effort can add a lot to your enjoyment of travel.

You need not go far. Red Cloud, Nebraska City, Kearney all have great local stories. The North Omaha section of Florence has a Mormon Cemetery that you should visit just for the statue. Military assignments took me to Great Falls, Montana; Tracy, California; Omaha, Biloxi, Wichita and other places. I learned Every Place has a history and a little effort to find it adds enormously to the joy of even the shortest visit.

This article first appeared in the January, 2013 issue of Sutton Life Magazine. Contact Jarod Griess at Mustang, Inc. for more information about the magazine: or 402-984-4203.

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