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Key West library receives rare, eclectic collection of island history

The “General Order” is just 47 words, handwritten in tough-to-read cursive by U.S. Navy Commodore David Porter from the U.S. ship Peacock.

It calls for a salute of 17 guns to be fired at 8 o’clock the morning of April 6, 1823, from the battery in front of the town. The American ensign is to be raised at the flag staff.

Later that morning the Navy officially took possession of the remote island to set up a base to fight what was left of the pirates of the Caribbean. Wrote Porter: “The town is hereafter to be called Allenton.”

Well, the name Allenton, after a Navy lieutenant who had been killed by pirates, never stuck. The island became known as Key West. But the Navy order — which local historians call the city’s founding document — did survive.

And now, 190 years later, the important document is finally back in Key West where it belongs — along with more than 1,000 other pieces of the island’s history that a rare book dealer from New England has collected over the past 15 years.

“I thought: ‘What good is it doing for me to have the collection sitting in my small farmhouse in Maine?’ ” said Scott DeWolfe, owner of DeWolfe & Wood Rare & Used Books of Alfred, Maine.

“I wanted from the very beginning for the material to come back to Key West,” he said. “I expected it would be maybe 20 years from now. But I’m pleased for it to go now.”

DeWolfe traveled to Key West this past week to see his beloved collection of historical documents, letters, pictures, postcards, menus, books and a hodgepodge of everyday items unveiled for the first time at its new home: the Monroe County Public Library on Fleming Street.

A local couple who wished to remain anonymous purchased the entire collection from DeWolfe to donate it to the library.

“We are very lucky to have it,” Key West historian Tom Hambright said.

While the commodore’s order was the most significant historic piece of the collection, it is not DeWolfe’s favorite. That honor goes to three editions of the island’s first newspaper, the Key West Register, printed in 1829.

“Early American newspapers tended not to have local news because everybody knew the local news; everybody knew everybody else’s business,” DeWolfe said. “What was cool about them were the ads and laws.”

The Key West Register printed the local ordinances that prohibited prostitution and nude bathing. “You can’t do it in the front of the town, but you can do it in other places,” DeWolfe said of the nude bathing.

One edition included a law regulating dogs. People were allowed to shoot canines that were running loose — except for terriers. They were spared because they kept the rat population in check. “It’s great stuff,” he said.

There’s also the 1885 incorporation of the Board of Trade, which later became the Chamber of Commerce, and an 1874 reward poster for an escapee from the Key West jail.

U.S. Marshall George D. Allen signed the reward that offered $200 for the delivery of Charles Eden back to jail.

DeWolfe found many of Key West’s historical gems thousands of miles away in the Northeast. That did not surprise Hambright, the historian.

“The first settlers here were from New England, and the Navy guys were predominantly from the Northeast,” Hambright said. “And during the Civil War, the two primary regiments here were from Pennsylvania and upper state New York.”

The paper documents had a much better chance of surviving away from the heat and humidity of Key West, especially before the invention of air conditioning.

Serendipity also played a part. In 1998, DeWolfe and his wife wanted to take a vacation to Bermuda but found it too pricey. Instead, they opted for a warm getaway in Key West because the book dealer thought it would be interesting to visit the island known for Ernest Hemingway and others well-known in the literary world.

“Man, this is a great place — there’s so much history and so much texture and the culture is so great,” DeWolfe thought after his five-day visit.

He returned to Maine, with the collector in him re-emerging. DeWolfe says he had collected stamps and coins as a kid. He graduated to postcards and material from the Shakers, but he gave up collecting when he bought the rare and used books dealership.

When he returned to Maine, he thought he might start collecting Key West history. He discovered he already had a few postcards of the island in his Florida file. But he got the “sign” to go full steam ahead when he found a piece of paper on the floor of his warehouse — a little brochure from around the early 1920s of the Overseas Hotel on Fleming Street, not far from the library where he now stood.

“What are the chances that that ephemeral little thing would survive and end up in my back room?” he said.

In that same warehouse, he found the cover of the program that was handed out at the opening of Henry Flagler’s railroad in Key West in 1912. (About 10 years later, on eBay, he found a program of that event and bought it.)

For the next 15 years, DeWolfe said, there wasn’t a week that didn’t go by where he didn’t find “something, somewhere.”

He loves the 1825 letter that a man in Key West named Jenners wrote to his mother in Virginia, describing his daily visits to the jailed pirates. The letter was sent with a box filled with a cask of wine that came from the pirates.

“We drink this every morning and every night with water and I think it will help for your digestion,” the man tells his mother. He also says he added some sea shells that he bought off a boat from the Bahamas.

“The neat thing about that was that even in 1825, there was a tourist trade,” DeWolfe said.

The collection also features a skeleton key from the La Concha Hotel — room 311 — as well as a 45 rpm record by the Conchtones featuring Conch Town Shuffle and Duval Street Blues.

There’s a well-worn book from 1858 that was printed in Boston but is about the laws and legalities of wrecking and salvaging in the Florida Keys. The copy is especially precious because it belonged to William Curry, a penniless Bahamian immigrant who became Florida’s first millionaire by wrecking and salvaging.

DeWolfe found a pass used by fishermen and sponges to get permission during the Civil War to work in water areas off Key West. “There was concern that people would be passing military information to Confederates,” DeWolfe said. “There may be more around, but it’s such an ephemeral piece.”

Ephemera is any transitory or printed matter not meant to be retained or preserved. It comes from Greek, meaning “lasts for a day.” DeWolfe and historians are thankful for the pack rats who did not throw away such items that now provide a wonderful insight into the history of the island.

The collection also features 559 photos scanned and viewable under the Scott DeWolfe Collection archived on the Monroe County Public Library website at

One is of the house of Asa Tiff, whose estate in the 1800s was worth $40,000, including the value of his slaves. That house now is better known for a later owner: Ernest Hemingway.

Hambright said he had never before seen about 50 percent of the pictures and about 80 to 90 percent of the other materials, which will take years to properly go through.

DeWolfe obtained the commodore’s general order from a military history collector who happened to live nearby in Maine.

But while he couldn’t wait to get his hands on that document, DeWolfe said he was quite apprehensive about buying one particular piece of his collection off eBay: a May 1963 edition of “CLIMAX,” The Magazine for Men on the GO.

He was enticed by the headline: “ORGY AT KEY WEST, EYEWITNESS REPORT!” It ran above “1000-MILE HORSE RACE!” and “GOLD! GOLD! GOLD! Pat Casey wildest prospector of them all!”

“The cool thing is the man and wife who wrote this article [about the Key West orgy] must have been trained in the social sciences,” DeWolfe said. “They go around and give the best descriptions and visuals of bars in Key West. They talk about parts of Key West I’ve never read anywhere else. So, as crazy as it sounds, this is historically one of the most important pieces of my collection.”