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Florida Keys Museum Tells Story Of Wrecker’s Paradise

The Florida Keys History and Discovery Center in Islamorada tells the story of Indian Key and salvager John Jacob Housman. A detailed scale model of Indian Key, shown above, helps visitors visualize what the island probably looked like around 1840. (Photo by JKN Model Works)

John Jacob Housman’s character was complex and colorful. He was an energetic entrepreneur, a shrewd businessman, a daring adventurer, a visionary developer, and it was all wrapped around the soul of a pirate. And in 1830, he found the perfect place to use these traits to his best advantage—Indian Key, a remote, tropical island in the Florida Keys, close to shipping lanes but well away from too much scrutiny by authorities.

“He was clearly a man with vision who was unafraid of going against the status quo,” said Brad Bertelli, an author and historian who is curator of the Florida Keys History and Discovery Center in Islamorada, Florida.

Still, Housman was not a man to let laws, ethics or common decency stand between him and a dollar. “I do think his moral compass was broken,” Bertelli said.

The 1/300-scale model of Indian Key shows the village–which included quarters for an enslaved community–as it might have looked around 1840. (Photo by JKN Model Works)

A detailed scale model of Indian Key when it was the seat of Housman’s small empire is on permanent display at the Center. The model, funded by a donation of $75,000 from Islamorada philanthropists Ken and Dee Meeks and built by JKN Model Works of Browns Mills, New Jersey, is based on period drawings and maps and some educated conjecture. The result is a captivating glimpse of how the island likely looked when it was attacked by Seminole Indians in 1840.

Bertelli thinks the story of Indian Key—part of the Florida Keys, about 85 miles southwest of Miami—“might be the best kept secret in the whole island chain.”

Prehistoric Native Americans probably were the island’s first occupants. In 1970, state archaeologists found a midden, or trash dump, where ancient Indians disposed of their refuse.

European ships started anchoring in the island’s natural harbor as early as the mid-18th century. Settlers were living on the island by the early 19th century.

Jacob Housman was only 23 years old in 1822, but he already was captain of a 56-foot schooner owned by his father Abraham Housman, a shipper who lived on Staten Island, New York. The younger Housman apparently became bored working the waters around Staten and Long islands, and decided to take his ship to the Caribbean.

He didn’t bother telling his father about his plans.

Like many mariners before him, however, he ran afoul of the treacherous coral reefs off the Keys and had to put in at Key West for repairs to his damaged ship. While he waited, he watched salvagers—known as “wreckers”—from Key West removing cargoes from other ships that had piled up on the reefs. The wreckers received a generous portion of the cargo for their fee. Housman realized the same reefs that had snagged his ship could provide a lucrative livelihood.

He changed his mind about going to the Caribbean, and stayed in Key West to learn the wrecking trade. But Housman’s business practices didn’t endear him to local residents, and after a few years, he wanted his own base of operations. Indian Key seemed a likely place for an ambitious, energetic businessman to set up shop. There was a small settlement on the island, and it was far enough away from Key West that Housman wouldn’t be competing with that city’s wreckers.

Housman bought the 11-acre island and started developing it, and by 1840 Indian Key had become Housman’s tropical paradise.

Eventually he’d sunk about $140,000—roughly $4 million in today’s dollars—into Indian Key. About 150 people lived in a small village on the island, and its amenities included a hotel, general store, bowling alley, restaurant, and a large warehouse where Housman stored the goods he’d plucked from shipwrecks.

He also brought his shady, amoral business practices to the island.

“After Housman purchased Indian Key’s general store,” Bertelli said, “he became the kind of owner who would be more than happy to give you store credit and then, when you couldn’t pay your end, he was also the kind of man who had no problem taking ownership of the collateral.”

Housman’s political influence increased with his prosperity, and he persuaded territorial officials to create Dade County and make Indian Key the county seat in 1836.

But the US government had been fighting the Seminole tribe of Florida for years, and in 1840 a Seminole war party attacked Indian Key, setting fire to the village and killing a dozen or so residents. Housman and his family escaped, but he sold his interests on the island soon after the attack and moved back to Key West. In 1841, he was killed in a salvaging operation off Key West.

Bertelli said building a 1/300-scale model of Indian Key “was not even on my radar” until the museum received the donation from Ken and Dee Meeks.

“It is one thing to tell someone the island was home to a pretty sophisticated community,” Bertelli said, “but it is another thing altogether to be able to show them the island with all the buildings and docks that once stood on this relatively small island.”

James Roberts, owner of JKN Model Works, said building the model was “unusual from day one” because the builders didn’t have an exact idea of what the island looked like 175 years ago.

“We worked with hearsay and sketches,” Roberts said. “We had to make it up along the way. (Bertelli) sent loads of information, and we had to do a lot of reading to understand what was going on there.”

Still, the builders created a brilliantly detailed conception of what the island probably looked like—right down to tiny oranges and lemons hanging on fruit trees and privies on the docks for sailors’ and residents’ use.

Indian Key’s population dwindled after the Seminole raid, and eventually the settlement was abandoned. Today, the island is Indian Key Historic State Park and is accessible only by boat.

Listen to IPPY Award-winning author Willie Drye talk about his latest book, For Sale—American Paradise: How Our Nation Was Sold An Impossible Dream In Florida, on NPR affiliates WUNC, Chapel Hill and WLRN, Miami. Visit his blog, Drye Goods, now in its 10th year. Follow him on Facebook.