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How Did a Giant Buoy Become a Key West Tourist Attraction? | Florida News

By JEFF KLEINMAN, Miami Herald

KEY WEST, Fla. (AP) — A 20-ton concrete buoy, which marks the Southernmost Point and 90 miles to Cuba, is one of Key West’s famous landmarks. Tourists flock to the marker every day to take photos, snap selfies, buy a souvenir or two.

But how did such a magnet arrive in 1983 on an otherwise quiet street that leads to the water?

Ask the thieves. They kept on snatching the former signs that marked the Southernmost Point at Whitehead and South streets.

So city leaders decided to put something there to mark the spot that no one could move. And the marine-themed monument was born.

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But that doesn’t mean trouble hasn’t had its way with the landmark.

In 2017, Hurricane Irma blasted the buoy with a storm surge. The concrete landmark needed TLC and a new coat of paint when the weather cleared. Last year, COVID took a toll, with workers covering the famous buoy with a blue covering to keep people from gathering.

Through the years, vandals have marked the marker with graffiti. And over the New Year’s holiday, two men went a step further with destruction, setting a Christmas tree on fire next to the attraction, which torched a part of the buoy.

City workers then went to work repairing the burned buoy by sanding and painting. Meanwhile, the tourists kept coming.

Let’s look into the archives of the Miami Herald on how the buoy came to be: the opening ceremonies, the theft of the previous markers, even the graffiti woes.

The politicians waxed patriotic about liberty, justice and the American Way. The dancers danced the rhumba and high-stepped to New York, New York within a circle of American flags. And the former and current Misses Key West helped the mayor cut the ribbon to the sounds of applause and clicking cameras.

With the barbershop quartet and the high school band, it could have been the Fourth of July in Anytown, U.S.A. It was, however, the 10th of September in Key West, the date the Southernmost City got its first permanent Southernmost Point marker, a 19.8-ton affair that tells the world that the continental United States begins just a little beyond South and Whitehead Streets.

At the end of Whitehead Street the curb is painted to let people know that Cuba is only 90 miles away. At the end of South Street there is a different story — in red, white and blue, tourists will get the message that “The U.S.A. begins here.”

“We thought this was the end of the U.S.,” said city Public Service Director Purie Howanitz as he stood at the doorway to the old cable house on the site. “Now we’re finding out it’s the beginning.

“It gets worse as you get north,” he said, laughing.

To the north, far to the north, a long invisible line that is the U.S.-Canadian border is the only sign of the Northernmost Point in the continental United States.

Simple monuments mark the geographical centers of the continental United States, at Fort Riley, Kansas, and North America, in Rugby, North Dakota, where the Germans and Scandinavians built their sod huts and grew their beets.

But Key West needed something with a little pizazz — something with the nautical flavor of the area. Besides, its signs marking the Southernmost Point kept getting carried off by college-age pranksters and even members of Britain’s Royal Air Force.

Enter C.W. (Billy) Pinder, city administrative aide and, at least for the summer, director of monuments. Standing on the spot one day, he saw a buoy offshore, where the Atlantic Ocean meets the Gulf of Mexico. A few months and almost 20 tons later, the city had a marker that would not become just another decoration on some dormitory wall.

City commissioners and other dignitaries at the ceremonies Saturday said Pinder’s concrete buoy marks more than just the Southernmost Point. In speech after speech, it was noted that the maroon, yellow and black object is a reminder that while communism is only 90 miles away, liberty begins for the Cuban or Haitian refugee at South and Whitehead Streets, Key West.

While all the talk might have become a bit thick for some of those who had gathered — possibly including those in a house across from the monument who saw fit to hang the U.S. flag upside down in honor of the occasion — Mayor Dennis Wardlow was there to point out that dissent is as allowable at the Southernmost Point as at any other site in the United States.

Between speeches the Key West High School band played the national anthem and America the Beautiful. And if a faulty tape player ruined a dancing routine for the Dancing Dolls, well, that was all right. They were appreciated, anyway.

“Let’s give them a big hand,” said Pinder, mastermind and emcee. “It was really a malfunction.”

But that was about all that went wrong. An hour or so after the invocations, the several hundred who had gathered moved off to the beat of the Junkanoos, the chairs, microphones and flags were gathered up, and the Southernmost Point was left to the tourists.

Nobody seemed too worried about that. As Wardlow had said, “I think that’ll be a monument that’ll be in many, many photographs. I think it’ll be here a long time. I don’t think anybody will steal it.”

It’s not in the phone book under “Key West, City of,” where the sewer department, the Port and Transit Authority and other city agencies are listed.

And it’s not in City Hall, where the City Commission and police department conduct business.

It’s out in the city’s field trailer near Horace O’Bryant Middle School, where administrative aide Billy Pinder plots his maps, gathers his data and — at least for the summer — runs the Key West Department of Monuments.

The department, which was created solely for the construction and design of one monument, was hopping as Pinder prepared for Saturday’s ceremony marking the corner of South and Whitehead Streets as the southernmost point in the continental United States.

There used to be a sign marking the spot, but pranksters made off with it last spring. The same fate won’t befall the buoy-shaped monument Pinder has designed — it weighs 19.8 tons.

“Buoys are all over the place,” Pinder said while gazing at a miniature of the monument and the seating layout for Saturday’s 11 a.m. dedication. “This was chosen because it fit our nautical pattern. This is where the Atlantic Ocean actually hits the Gulf of Mexico.”

Pinder said he had an inspiration for the design while standing on the southernmost spot and gazing out over the ocean.

“I was looking out to sea, and I saw a buoy,” he said. “I called the Coast Guard to see if they had one they could give to us.”

The Coast Guard didn’t have any spare buoys, he said. But constructing the monument from 19.8 tons of cement “worked out to be even better,” he said, because the rain, sun and wind would have rusted a metal marker.

“We can’t build anything out of bronze or marble,”Pinder said. “We don’t have the money.” Materials for the monument cost $902.17, he said, adding that he hopes to make up the costs by selling commemorative T-shirts and bumper stickers.

He also has President Reagan and Gov. Bob Graham on the list of dignitaries invited to the ceremony. Graham begged off, citing another engagement; Pinder said he hasn’t heard from Reagan yet, but he’s keeping his hopes up.

Pinder also has hopes that something can be done for the old cable house on the site, where a telegraph wire to Cuba once originated and which some people felt should have been designated as the southernmost monument.

“If someone doesn’t do something about this real soon, I will,” Pinder said about the dilapidated state of the structure. “I want to get a plaque on it and repair it. It has a fabulous history.”

That will have to wait, however. “This is my 645th project,” Pinder said. “It’s been a lot of work, a lot of work. The fun comes later.”

Rumor has it those bloody Brits with the Royal Air Force were the ones who copped the Southernmost Point sign last month.

No matter, says Key West City Manager Joel Koford. The city, tired of pranksters making off with the prized souvenir that marks the southernmost tip of the continental United States, is pulling out the stops and constructing a sign that may just be uncoppable.

City worker Billy Pinder has designed the new sign which will be an imitation sea buoy. The large sign will be posted in the water and the base encased in concrete.

“It’ll take six frog men and 100 pounds of TNT to remove this one,” Koford joked, adding the new sign should be ready in a few days. “Maybe we ought to booby trap it just in case.”

The old metal Southernmost Point sign was discovered swiped around April 8. Local conch shell salesman Al Kee put up a makeshift sign to tide the city over.

“We lose one a year,” Kee said.

Key West’s famed sign designating the tip of the island that is the Southernmost Point in the continental United States has vanished.

Police Chief Larry Rodriguez said the theft of the sign, believed to have occurred Thursday night, was probably the work of visiting college students.

Rodriguez said such pranks, including the theft of other street signs, are common during the college spring break.

One Key West resident, Al Kee, wasted no time in finding a temporary replacement for the sign that is usually posted at the corner of South and Whitehead Streets. He grabbed a handy piece of plywood and with pink fluorescent paint sprayed “Southernmost Point in U.S.A.”

“Who wants to come this far and not go to the Southernmost Point?” Kee said. “They ought to always keep a spare on hand.”

Mayor Dennis Wardlow and City Commissioner Joe Balbontin said they will investigate the Southernmost burglary.

“Probably every other tourist who comes to Key West goes to the Southernmost Point to have their picture taken,” Wardlow said. “We have to replace that right away.”

The 20-ton concrete buoy that marks the (almost) Southernmost Point of the Continental United States is staying put.

Key West City Commissioners on Thursday turned down a plan to get rid of the marker and move the geographic landmark — and the hordes of tourists and buses that flock to it every day — a couple of blocks away to the end of the Duval Street.

Neighbors came up with the idea because they are fed up with the tour buses that park there to unload the masses and worried about the oblivious tourists who walk into traffic to take pictures.

Tourists wouldn’t know the difference and the red, black and yellow statue is not in the right place anyway, advocates of the relocation said.

Key West officials recently surveyed that end of the island and figured that, among southernmost points, the spot now designated so actually ranks fourth. The real southernmost point is at the Navy base, nearby. Next comes the White Street pier and third the end of Duval.

“I think it’s wonderful that we have this geographic designator, but it’s really in the wrong place,” said Commissioner Sally Lewis, who lives across the street from it.

But her colleagues decided there is no point in moving the point.

“I realize it’s a problem with the buses, but deal with the buses,” Commissioner Percy Curry said. “Don’t move the Southernmost Point.”

Over and over again, he said, he hears that tourists don’t want Key West to keep on changing.

The monument has stood there since 1983 when a city worker — inspired by a buoy in the ocean — designed it. Since, tourists have converged there to snap photos, deface it, buy conch shells, gaze out toward Cuba or celebrate the thrill of reaching a significant spot on the map.

The traffic at the corner has ballooned in the past few years, Lewis said. Sometimes, up to eight buses park in the area running their engines and bothering neighbors with the noise and diesel fumes.

She suggested banning them from the area, but that idea ran into legal roadblocks.

Her colleagues decided instead to put up signs banning the tourist buses from loading and unloading in the area.

“I don’t think it’s going to do it, but we’ll give it a try,” Lewis said.

Four young men from Miami Beach were arrested in Key West early Monday when police discovered graffiti scrawled on the Southernmost Point marker.

Key West Police Lt. Al Flowers had parked his car down the street and walked up to the often-photographed landmark at the foot of Whitehead Street at 3:30 a.m. when he saw four young men standing around the large buoy-shaped marker, said Cynthia Edwards, spokeswoman for the Key West Police Department.

One of them, a 16-year-old, threw down a marker and ducked behind the monument when he saw police coming, Edwards said.

On the monument was a crown symbol and the words, “Latin King gang, Miami branch,” along with names and other symbols, Edwards said.

One of Key West’s most popular spots for tourist picture- taking is not exactly photo friendly.

The giant buoy marking the Southernmost Point of the United States is suffering from a bad case of graffiti. Initials, illustrations, love messages and bad poetry smother the monument.

Besides the harm from the hands of humans, wind and water have ripped away chunks of the concrete buoy’s tri-colored paint job, revealing ugly patches of colorless concrete.

Still, the tourists come. And click, click, click go their cameras. Meanwhile, in the background is all that graffiti — borne from felt-tip pens and pocket knives — and the chipping paint.

Don’t think the visitors don’t notice.

“It’s disgraceful,” said Michael Burks, on vacation from St. Petersburg. “This is a landmark.”

Said Karen Pedersen, his friend: “It’s your typical disrespect for property. The only way to keep people off of it is to rope it off.”

Rebecca White, visiting from Chicago, eagerly sauntered up to the buoy and posed for her camera-wielding friend, Cynthia Davis. Both said the marker, 90 miles from Cuba, is unsightly from all the graffiti.

“It’s the end of the earth and you get all that crap in the photo,” Davis said. “Who cares that Matt loves O.B.?”

Al Kee, who sells seashells at the Southernmost Point, says it’s a shame the buoy looks the way it does.

“People from all over the world look at that marker,” he said. “They expect something clean and neat.”

There is hardly a clean spot on the monument. On the front, someone has drawn a huge marijuana leaf. Next to it is a bolt of lightning.

Other markings include a frog, the signature of someone named Zorro from Oz, and the depiction of a postcard offering “Greetings from Holland.” And then there’s poetry: “Party Hardy, Rock N’ Roll, Drink Bacardi.”

The Southernmost Point faced the same problems last year before a group of volunteers decided enough was enough and cleaned the marker of graffiti. But the ensuing year has not been kind to the red, yellow and black buoy. The city vows to do something about it.

Key West Manager Richard Witker recently fired off a memo to his public works people asking that the monument be cleaned, and that a routine maintenance schedule be considered. Public Service Director Purie Howanitz said he plans to take action.

Howanitz said the buoy needs a complete sandblasting and a new paint job. The work will begin at the end of September, he said.

After that, keeping the marker clean will be a challenge, he said. In the past, his crews have been called out occasionally to spritz the buoy with mineral spirits to wipe off eggs and other food flung onto the torpedo-shaped marker. The graffiti is almost impossible to wipe off.

“There’s a lot of vandalism going on,” Howanitz said. “People beat it with sticks and scrape it with knives. Some people, all they know how to do is destroy.”

Howanitz said it will cost the city about $500-$600 to sandblast the marker and slather it with paint. He has no grand visions that this will be the final face-lift for the buoy.

“There’s no guarantee it won’t be marked up again,” he said. “I don’t know of anything to prevent vandalism.”

The city of Key West built and planted the 20-ton buoy at the end of Whitehead Street in 1983. It replaced a nondescript sign that formerly marked the spot. The big buoy came to be because pranksters were forever stealing the old sign.

A clean buoy won’t come too soon for Key West Commissioner Sally Lewis, who lives across the street from the Southernmost Point.

“The condition of it is downright deplorable,” she said. “It embarrasses me. I feel that 95 percent of the tourists who come to this town have their photos taken there. Look at the memories they are taking home with them.”

John Parks Jr., president of the Greater Key West Chamber of Commerce, offers a suggestion to keep the marker looking fine: “Maybe we should put a sign there that says, ‘This is an important place. Please keep it clean.’”

Don DeFeo, president of the Key West Hotel-Motel Association, wants the graffiti cleaned up. But he is not surprised by the messages scribbled and carved into the marker.

“Those are expressions of people’s feelings,” he said. “They want to leave their sentiments behind.”

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