The 37th annual Conch Republic Independence Celebration commemorates the Florida Keys’ symbolic secession from the United States — an act inspired by the 1982 establishment of a U.S. Border Patrol blockade that virtually stopped traffic on the only road connecting the Keys and mainland Florida.
In protest, local officials proclaimed the island chain the independent Conch Republic. They then declared “war” on the mother country, carried out by pelting a U.S. Naval officer with stale Cuban bread, immediately surrendering and requesting $1 billion in foreign aid.
Today, patriots throughout the Keys fly the royal blue flag of the republic, whose motto is “We Seceded Where Others Failed,” and celebrate the secession’s annual anniversary with 10 days of irreverent events.
The 2019 festival begins Friday, April 19, with a ceremonial breakfast and raising of the colors of the eccentric “nation” by the Conch Republic’s military forces.
The outrageous Great Conch Republic Drag Race is slated for 2 p.m. Saturday, April 20, in the 700 block of Key West’s Duval Street, and is to feature fetchingly garbed drag queens sprinting down the pavement in startlingly high heels.
Hosted by the Bourbon St. Pub, the event typically spoofs an auto-racing spectacular with a starting gate, pit stops, finish line and viewing areas. Organizers are outfitted as pit crew and race officials, while an island DJ blares the sound of air horns and revving engines.
A large crowd generally gathers to watch the often-hilarious drag performers test their high-heeled sprinting abilities on the asphalt — many wearing full makeup and elaborate wigs.
Rules of the road require the racers to navigate various street hazards including an obstacle course of tires. They also typically get a high-speed “diva-style” ride up the track in super-charged shopping carts propelled by local male dancers.
Registration is free of charge and Bourbon St. Pub plans to offer costumes, including high-heeled shoes for entrants who don’t have their own.
The secession itself is to be commemorated at 5 p.m. Tuesday, April 23, at the Key West Fire Department Station 2 at Simonton and Angela streets. Hosted by Conch Republic dignitaries and military members, the ceremony typically includes a 21–conch shell horn salute.
Events also include a pirates’ ball and costume contest, tall ship “rum running” day sails and sunset cruises aboard the republic’s flagship Schooner Wolf, “Conch Crawl” bar and distillery strolls, the Hot Havana Nights dinner dance and the Great Sea Battle in Key West Harbor. During the latter, sea dogs and wenches on tall ships and other vessels, as well as Conch Republic military members, combat “evil federal forces” in a skirmish that the republic always wins.
The festival’s conclusion Sunday, April 28, coincides with the start of the Conch Republic Cup Regatta to Cuba, a multiday event promoting cultural exchange through sport.
Event information and schedule: conchrepublicdayskeywest.com
Key West visitor information: fla-keys.com/keywest or 1-800-LAST-KEY
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