One of the first, if not the first, fishing guides in Marathon was
Captain Harry Snow. Harry came from New York as a railroad
supervisor in 1926. He was a hard-hat diver performing
underwater inspections of the railroad piers. That same year
he caught his first bonefish. After the 1935 hurricane severely
damaged the railroad, he became an inspector for the
Overseas Road and Toll District from which he quit to become
a full time "flats" fishing guide in the Middle Keys. His son,
Harry Snow Jr., followed in his footsteps as a fishing guide.
Fishing was and is an important part of Keys living.
William and Mary Parrish moved to Marathon in 1927 with five
daughters and one son to operate a fish house. Captain Snow
married one of the daughters. The Parrish family watched the
town grow as the first Overseas Highway with ferries went into
operation. The family was instrumental in re-opening the
school in 1928 by inviting a teacher, Miss Tessie Kyle, to live in
their home. After the 1935 hurricane and the subsequent new
highway opened, William Parrish became Marathon's first real
estate broker. The highway also ushered in Greyhound Bus
One of the seldom mentioned, old time residents was Stephen
C. Singleton. He homesteaded on Ramrod Key in the railroad
days, sold real estate in the Upper Keys during the 'land boom',
then managed the Key West Chamber of Commerce, but
chose Marathon for his last days. In 1915 he wrote:
The Florida Keys
Southwest, southwest are flung
The emerald beads that mean
So little to thee now, O Florida!
And yet, when they are cut and strung
And set with gold, and Nations bow
Before their matchless beauty,
In full-voiced chorus shall be sung
Thou thanks to thy Creator
Who did thee thus endow.
The 1930s brought change to Marathon and it was change that stayed. The 1909 post office had gone through a
few postmasters. In September of 1929, Arthur Woodburn took over as postmaster, a position he held until retiring
in 1948. His Marathon Boat Yard was the post office and his wife ran a grocery store. H.S. McKenzie came down
from Tavernier to construct the Sundry Store. In 1937 Jodie and Lulu Hall started building Hall's Fishing Camp with
overnight accommodations. A few more cabins were added each year. Soon William Thompson built his Marathon
Marathon continued to grow slowly like the Keys other than Key West. For one reason there were fewer amenities -
no electricity, few churches and no high school. Here is a photo of Marathon around 1939. The large building is
White's Sundry Store. The Toppinos opened the Overseas Lodge. Gilbert and Maud Spense opened the Flamingo
Bar and Restaurant (1945). Next in time was World War II. Did World War II impede Marathon? The answer is
The advent of World War II brought electricity and fresh water to all the Keys, but Marathon also gained an airport
and a Coast Guard facility. The Florida Keys Electric Cooperative Association, Inc. (FKECA) was certified by the
Florida Secretary of State on January 22, 1940 with an office address of the "Marathon Grocery, Marathon, Florida."
It had its first board meeting four days later and John A. Russell of Islamorada was elected chairperson. Of the
incorporators, one was from Stock Island, two from Marathon, one from Islamorada, two from Tavernier and three
from Rock Harbor.
Electricity led the way for John and Wilma Brantner to open 'Ye Old Feshing Hole', first a bait and tackle shop,
eventually a theater and a meeting place for the Catholic Church. The Brantler's would leave cans of gas outside
when closed using the honor system for payment. Marathon also had a Coast Guard recruit (boot) camp and a
sizable Navy repair yard on Hog Key.
Ostensibly as a training facility, the Army Air Corps built a 5,008 foot long airstrip during World War-II. The extremely
long runway was necessary for heavy bombers. Some believe it had a secret mission, others say they did not want
large bomb loads taking off from Key West. The first commercial airlines to offer scheduled air service was
National Airlines in 1958.
A lighting system, rotating beacon and hard surfaced overlay were added in the 1960s. A parallel taxi strip was
added in the 1970s. The facility has been completely modernized and is operated by Monroe County who presently
(2001) is having trouble finding scheduled air service.
Like the rest of the Florida Keys, Marathon realized changes after World War II. There are too many to list, but I
believe the arrival of Francis and Mary Crane deserves listing. The story should be well known. Simply, they
purchased the Norberg Thompson, Maitland Adams and George Adderly land tracts. All in the 1950s, they built a
house, a museum, gave land for a church, developed a sub-division. What remains today are Crane Point and
Crane Hammock as testimony to early minimal environmental impact development.
In the absence of city directories, telephone books give a glimpse of a community. In the November 8, 1951 edition
there are three exchanges: Marathon, Matecumbe and Key Largo. Marathon has two pages with 149 entries
including residential, business, the telephone company, Road and Toll District, Highway Patrol and US
government. All are four digit numbers. In 1961 there are 10 pages all with the 743 prefix.
Although all the Keys participated in the 1950 "dredge and fill" mode, the author believes that Marathon led the the
way. The Chamber of Commerce under J. J. Hall, president; Fred Center, vice-president; and board members
William Parrish, Sr., Deane Brigham, Lewis Gray, George Goodson and E. G. Stempel plus about 200 members
One of the 50s structures that remains began as the Davis Docks project or the Marathon Motel and Docks. Floyd
W. Davis had owned the property where Miami International Airport was built and established himself as Miami
builder with projects in Liberty City area. For his Marathon project he employed Tampa contractors Archie and Ollie
Rackley to construct a lighthouse designed by Les Barett for the project's landmark structure. The exact date of
opening is not known, but from advertisements it was in full operation in 1957. Then came Hurricane Donna and
in 1967 Boca Grande residents Diane and Michael van Beuren completely renovated the Hurricane Donna
damaged Davis project and renamed it Faro Blanco. Faro as an English name for lighthouses evolved from the
200s B.C. lighthouse Pharos of Alexandria.
Another structure was the Marathon Theater, Marathon Self Storage. The theater had seating for 450 customers,
quite an ambitious project for the time. I opened for the showing of the "Battle Circus" on July 19, 1953 starring
Humphrey Bogart and June Allyson.
In the 1950s, Phillip Sadowski and John Puto probably double-handedly had made the largest change by
developing Marathon Shores and Little Venice areas. Their 125-unit air-conditioned Key Hotel changed ownership
frequently. First the Jack Tar Motel, then the Salty Dog Motel, the Driftwood Inn, etc.
Almost at the same time, Shelter Key was developed into Key Colony Beach. Shelter Key was about 90 acres of
mangrove in 1953 when Sadowski converted it to a 285 acre buildable island . With about 20 homes, the City of
Key Colony incorporated in 1957, built a convention center (now the city hall) and has governed itself throughout
these bureaucratic times.
In April 1951 incorporation attempts began (It failed in 1955.) and its first newspaper, The Marathon Times by Fred
Sheflin appeared. Then in 1952 Marathon gained a full time attorney, Ralph Cunningham. The year 1953 brought a
full time dentist (Dr. Fennel), a medical doctor (Dr. Eisenbarth) and the Florida Keys Keynoter newspaper (Edgar
and Patricia Seney). Dial telephones replaced the old crank type. Then came a garden club, a bank, refuge service,
a fire department and plans for a hospital (built in 1962). A number of churches were established. Brian Newkirk
built his exclusive development on Duck Key with the Indies House as the center piece. The Marathon renaissance
was on the move and nothing could stop it.
It could be slowed though as on September 11, 1960, Marathon took the brunt of Hurricane Donna. Winds up to
166 miles per hour were reported. Parts of an article titled "Hurricane Briefs" reported by the Keynoter newspaper
on Monday, September 12, 1960 are: "A curfew has been established by the sheriff's department . . . . Soup
kitchens have been set up at the fire department and American Legion hall, serving three meals daily. Water is
available on a limited basis at the fire department. Calls to the outside world are being accepted by a ham radio
setup. . . . Clothing for the family is being passed out by the Red Cross. . . . Looters are shot and questioned later.
A limited amount of ice can be had at the fire department. . . . All persons -adults and children- should have typhoid
shots. . . ."
In historical Keys tradition, Marathon rebuilt only to face the threat of another hurricane. Irma and Robert Stout were
aware of the threat when they opened Stout's Restaurant in 1964. And sure enough it was Hurricane Betsy in
September 1965, but Marathon was spared massive destruction this time. Betsy was followed by Hurricane Inez in
October of the next year, however only minimal damage was done. Newcomers began to worry with six hurricanes
in six years.
As in much of the Keys, the 1970s were the "dredge and fill" era. Marathon began the decade by again declining to
incorporate by 517 against and 115 for. The state designation of the Florida Keys as an Area of Critical State
Concern in 1974 supplied the reins to be pulled on to control development. Government agencies began impact
studies and environmentalists moved in. Most know the story from there on. Evolution occurred as in most
communities. An example, with time Tiptons Bar and Grill changed to the Hurricane Lodge then to the Holiday Inn
The 1980s were a time of continued change for now not-so-small Marathon. Probably the significant event was the
highway modernization. Construction of a new Seven Mile Bridge began in 1979 and opened May 24, 1982. The
Vaca Cut Bridge was next opening for two-way traffic in March 1983. Controversy surrounded the four-laning 'in
town'. It was done in five segments beginning in March 1985. The southwest portion was not done.
The impacts and results of growth came home to rest in the 1990s. There were many who followed the likes of the
Pents, Moores, Singletons, Smiths, Snows and Parrishs. They ran the proverbial 'marathon' well and produced
today's great Middle Keys community, which has just voted to incorporate.
HISTORICAL PRESERVATION SOCIETY OF THE UPPER KEYS
Jerry Wilkinson · Key Largo, FL
The Historical Preservation Society of the Upper Keys meet at
Key Largo Library Community Room, second Monday of each
month. Most programs of a historical nature.
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