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The island of Key West is a popular winter vacation spot in the United States. Surrounded by water and coral reef Key West boasts many unique outdoor activities but there are also things to do on the land as well.
Fort Taylor was constructed in 1845 on the edge of Key West, facing southwest. It was part of the US Army’s plan to fortify the southern border and defend the southern coastline. It took twenty years to build, and hundreds of men worked in very poor conditions to build the fort. They included slaves, masons and even soldiers unlucky enough to get assigned to this post. There were many deaths due to yellow fever and other miseries. Fort Taylor has an interesting history as far as the Civil War era is concerned. Even though Florida is of course south of the Mason-Dixon line, Key West was part of the northern Union during the war. It was the only city south of the line to be on the side of the Union. Therefore, Fort Taylor was an important piece of the Union’s defense system.
The State of Florida did secede from the Union, so Union soldiers had to march into Fort Taylor and claim it as part of the Union, and hold it. Just outside the walls of Fort Zachary Taylor, the young men of Key West were joining the Confederate army. Fort Taylor held out but was still largely ignored by Washington when it needed supplies and more troops. The men suffered from neglect and continuing problems with yellow fever. The fort degraded along with the morale of its men. It never even got fully completed before the US Army decided it wasn’t even strategically important any longer. In the 1900s, a few updates were completed on the fort and it was called into service a few times. However, by the 1960s, Fort Taylor was abandoned. By then the US Navy had taken over. A Navy historian was largely responsible for cleaning the place up and renovating it to become a Florida State Historical Park.
There are fifty acres managed by the State of Florida and it has the best beach in Key West. You can have a picnic here, eat at the concession stand, bring your bicycle and ride the trails, or hang out on the beautiful beach. In winter, there are exhibits by Key West Sculpture on the grounds.
East Martello Museum and Art Gallery
Artifacts and displays of Florida Keys history, Robert The Haunted Doll, junkyard sculptures by Stanley Papio, and more fill this Civil War fort. Daily 9:30am-5pm.
The East Martello Museum was once a fort maintained by the US Army. Built in the Civil War era, the ocean-facing tower and its sister, West Martello Tower, were to be used to protect Key West from invading ships. They belonged to Fort Zachary Taylor, which is now a Florida State Park with a lovely beach. This tower, however, was never finished and by the time it was half built, it had become obsolete. It never got to house any canons, alas. It was left abandoned until the mid-20th century when it was developed into its present-day state. East Martello Tower is today a museum and gallery showcasing local talent.
Visitors to East Martello Museum will learn about important industries in the history of Key West such as shrimping, turtles, and sponging. You can view Indian artifacts dug up from the Key West Golf Course on Stock Island. There’s a boat used by Cuban refugees in the 1960s which is interesting as well.
East Martello Tower is also an art gallery, with a permanent exhibit by Mario Sanchez. Mario Sanchez is a Key West native born just after the turn of the century. His three-dimensional art uses found objects and depicts things like roosters, pregnant women, parades, and clouds. He is a local favorite in Key West and most of his work is about Key West life and scenery.
To get to East Martello Tower from the east, take a left as you enter the island of Key West, heading towards the beaches. Drive west on South Roosevelt Boulevard and you will see the museum on your right, just before the Key West Airport. Look for a large wooden duck out front.
Heritage House Museum
Heritage House Museum is a favorite of history buffs and those interested in Key West culture. The museum is actually an old Conch House. Conch Houses are small wooden Victorian-style houses unique to Key West. There’s a little bit of Bahamas architecture mixed in, which you can see from the small scale of conch houses, plus the emphasis on wide porches to catch the island breezes. Heritage House is full of period antiques and odd treasures from the heyday of Key West’s wrecking days. There’s also a rambling, wonderful garden in the back. It’s full of beautiful orchids so don’t miss it if you get to the museum. It’s a favorite spot for weddings.
Heritage House Museum also hosts writers’ workshops, poetry festivals, lectures, and other cultural events. The Robert Frost Poetry Festival is held each year in April. Writers get together and work on haiku, poetry and hold readings. The Travel Writing Workshops are popular, with one in January and one in February of each year.
They claim that Robert Frost was a big fan of Heritage House Museum, visiting quite often. There’s the Robert Frost Cottage out back, where he stayed. You can also book your small conference or workshop to be held in the cottage.
The house was built in the mid-1800s but in the 1903s was bought by Jessie Porter Kirke Newton, a fifth-generation Conch. She filled the house with collectibles and wrecking items that you see today, in honor of Key West’s wrecking history.