Clinton Curry: Steward of Key West's Heritage

Clinton Curry is a seventh-generation Key West resident or "Conch" whose ancestors arrived some 180 years ago from the Bahamas' Green Turtle Cay. The fifth generation of his family to be born on the island, he has lived there for all but two years of his life.

Passionate about preserving the history and culture of his hometown, Curry has worked with Historic Tours of America, a Keys-based heritage tourism and attractions company, since 1987. During that time, his duties have included being a tour guide, operations manager of the Key West Aquarium and general manager of the Key West Shipwreck Treasures Museum - where he reveled in telling tales of the island's seafaring past to visitors.

Curry also helps preserve the Florida Keys' history by practicing the unusual art of conch shell blowing. Blowing into the fluted pink-lined shells of the hardy sea mollusk is a centuries-old local tradition; conch "horns" were employed as signaling devices by early Native Americans, 19th-century seafarers and resident shipwreck salvagers among others.

The art of coaxing sounds from the shell has been passed down for generations in Curry's family, and he has been a frequent winner of the island's annual Conch Shell Blowing Contest. While most "conch honkers" can only produce tuneless blasts, he's known for playing excerpts from composer Aram Khachaturian's intricate "Sabre Dance" - and for the even rarer accomplishment of blowing two shells at once.

Curry enjoys teaching "shell musicianship" to others including his daughter Parker, and regards it as a small way to help preserve his family's and Key West's heritage. Recently he spoke with Keys Traveler about how that heritage continually influences and motivates him.

Keys Traveler: What aspects of the Keys environment or way of life matter most to you? 

Clinton Curry: The aspect of Keys life that matters most to me is connection within the community. Sure, many of my childhood friends and their families have moved on, but many are still here. It brings a smile to my face when I see them out and about, living their best life. Secondly, the incredible diversity of people and cultures we have in the Keys matters to me. Having studied the history of the Keys, I know that we've had international cultural influences - all of which have a chapter in our rich history.

KT: Who or what inspired you to become passionate about respecting and protecting the Keys' natural world and heritage? 

CC: Like many other generational "Conchs," it's my parents and those that came before me. The experiences gained in my childhood laid a foundation for respect of our environment and its balanced usage. My first full-time job was as a tour guide at the Key West Aquarium. I recognized that I had a responsibility to not only share all the great stories about the animals with our visitors, but an even greater responsibility to share conservation and preservation efforts.

KT: How does that passion influence your work? 

CC: Today, I have the privilege of serving as director of operations for Historic Tours of America's Key West operations. We pride ourselves on sharing the rich history of the cities we operate in - and here in Key West, my family's history is directly connected to the history of the island. So by sharing the island's history, I'm sharing my family's history. 

KT: What keeps you energized, challenged and focused on your path?

CC: My family and respect for others. For as long as I can remember, I have desired to be a positive representative for my family, both personally and professionally. As someone who has worked in the tourist industry for most of my life and who also loves to travel with my wife and daughter, I recognize how enriching travel and vacations are. Just as I want to have positive experiences when traveling, professionally I strive to provide the same for those choosing to travel to Key West and the Florida Keys. 

KT: What's your favorite natural or eco-friendly activity in the Keys? 

CC: I love kayaking in the backcountry, cycling the Florida Keys Overseas Heritage Trail, sitting on the waterfront at sunrise and sunset, and lastly stargazing. I'd have to say my favorite is kayaking, because it provides the opportunity to combine the bulk of things I like to do into one completely immersive activity.

KT: What message do you want your actions and example to communicate to people you encounter? 

CC: The message I like to communicate is that Key West is so much more than the party town many perceive it to be. While many come here for the party atmosphere, many wind up leaving with a greater appreciation for all that Key West offers with its rich cultural heritage and diversity.