By M.-J. Taylor
They say the best things in life are free – and that certainly seems to be the case with this historic museum in Key West’s Old Town. This classic revival home, built circa 1829, survived hurricanes, two major fires and the test of time. Inside, you take a step back into a time when the Southernmost City was the wealthiest city per capita in the United States and the largest in Florida. A docent will guide you through the house and tell you stories of the island’s earliest days – or let you browse on your own.
Indians and pirates were the island’s earliest residents – but when the first American settlers arrived around 1821 – only the bones of early Native Americans remained. Those skeletons had given Key West its name – dubbed Caya Hueso or Bone Island by the Spanish, and corrupted by the English as “Key West.”
There were still pirates in the area, though, and they posed a threat to the shipping lanes along the Florida Straits. Under the command of Commodore David Porter the Navy established a base in Key West, and a squadron of shallow draft vessels called the Mosquito Fleet successfully routed the last of the pirates from Florida waters. Wreckers soon made Key West their home – and lined their pockets with the auction of cargo from ships that wrecked along the coral reef that that lines the island chain.
This beautifully restored and maintained home, is not only the oldest house in Key West; it’s also the oldest all-wood structure in Florida. Built to last by a ship’s carpenter, Richard Cussans, the house was constructed of cedar and pine by mortise and tenon joinery (and without nails) atop three 3 foot piers of coral and brick. Its sturdy construction and elevation meant it was one of eight houses to survive the devastating Havana Hurricane of 1848 – the rest of Key West’s 600 or so buildings were leveled by the horrendous storm.
From the early 1830s until 1969 Captain Francis Watlington and his descendants lived in the home. Captain Francis Watlington and his bride, Emeline arrived in the Southernmost City came to Key West as newlyweds in the 1830s. They rented and later purchased the home where they raised their 7 daughters. Captain Watlington was a harbor pilot, port warden and customs inspector over the years.. He was also a member of the Florida state legislature from 1858 to 1861 until Civil War broke out and resigned his post to join the Confederate Navy.
Visitors will also get a glimpse at the lifestyle of the island’s earliest settlers – photographs and portraits show their dress and demeanor. What they ate and drank, where they got their water (there was no running water in Key West until the 1940s!), where they worshipped and how the amused themselves, are all explored in the tour. Outside the house is the cook house – the only remaining cook house in Key West. Kitchens were separate from homes in that era not just to keep the heat out of the house but to keep the fire away from the main structure.
Much of the furniture and furnishings in the museum belonged to the Watlington Family. The museum’s curator has filled in the ‘missing pieces’ with fine antiques from the early 1800s.
The gardens offer a delightful respite from the hustle and bustle of Duval Street and downtown Key West. Several benches offer a place to rest, and the museum gift shop sells water and soft drinks for a $1. The house is open from 10-4 every day except Wednesday and Sunday. Admission is free.
M.-J. Taylor, is a Key West based writer who loves writing about historic homes and other attractions in the Southernmost City.