In 1935 the building known today as the Tavernier Hotel was still under construction, but not as a hotel. The building was constructed as a movie theater, the third incarnation of a movie theater in Tavernier.
The first version had been an outdoor theater frequented by both locals and workers building roads to create the Overseas Highway. The second version, The Key Theater, was housed in a building that in more recent years has been home to the Copper Kettle Restaurant and today Café Moka. The third was still under construction in the late summer of 1935.
Hugh “Mac” McKenzie was the man behind all three versions of the theater. Mac and his wife Hazel first visited Tavernier while on their honeymoon in 1928. Their story is a familiar one. They visited on vacation, went home with dreams in their eyes, and then started talking about moving to the Keys. For Mac and Hazel, the move was not a far one. Mac had been a teacher at the Shenandoah School in Miami. At the end of the school year, they packed up and moved to Tavernier with $5 in their pockets.
Cliff Carpenter also moved to Tavernier in 1928. Born in Alabama on July 5, 1904 he would move to the Miami area circa 1918 before joining the Merchant Marines in 1926. While on a two-week leave from the Merchant Marines. Carpenter came to the Florida Keys to visit his brother William, a section foreman for the Florida East Coast Railway, in Tavernier. When Carpenter’s contract with the Merchant Marines expired in 1928 he moved to Tavernier and found work as a fishing captain. Carpenter also did a little farming, leasing three acres on Plantation Key from the Hanna Shoe Company for $1 a year. He planted tomatoes, watermelons and banana melons.
According to Carpenter, two trained nurses also arrived in the Tavernier area circa 1928.
Moving from Memphis, Tennessee, the two ladies remembered simply as Mac and Bea drove to the Florida Keys in a 1928 Dodge. By day they would take the backseat out of the car, fill it with rocks and haul them to Tavernier Creek where they would be dumped. Mac and Bea were working to create a small spit of land that jutted out into the creek.
For those first nights they slept inside the car. However, as the days passed and they continued their mission a little piece of dry land began to rise from the edge of Tavernier Creek. Once it had, the two constructed a small house. At night they would go beneath the railway bridge that crossed the creek and net shrimp they would sell to fishermen in the morning. Mac and Bea’s house became Tavernier Creek’s first bait house. As their business developed they also began to rent fishing poles and skiffs.
By the summer of 1935 Hans Kluduo had also arrived in Tavernier and opened a grocery store. Kluduo’s business was unlike any other in the area. Behind the building, in a 12’ X 14’ pen, a Montana brown bear was caged. Named Bruno, Kluduo had raised the bear from a cub. On September 2, 1935, as the Labor Day Hurricane was devastating the Upper Keys, Bruno escaped from his cage. While the Islamorada area suffered the brunt of the Category 5 hurricane’s fury, Tavernier was hit to a lesser degree.
In the aftermath of the storm, the theater building, still under construction, was utilized by the Red Cross to care for injured survivors. Mac and Bea, who lost their little house in the storm, stayed with Cliff Carpenter until a new home could be built for the ladies. Meanwhile, the National Guard was sent in to help quell whatever chaos might erupt and set up a blockade along the Overseas Highway just north of Kluduos’s store.
The guardsmen stopped every car and searched it. They also patrolled the local buildings every hour to combat looting. At one point Cliff Carpenter heard some of the guardsmen begin to shout as if they were in a panic. Carpenter walked up to the road to investigate. The guardsmen had thrown their rifles down and were running for their lives. Hot on their heels was Bruno. The bear was chasing them around a large truck parked along the road.
Hearing the excitement, Mr. Kludou stepped out of his store to witness his pet, Bruno, chasing those poor men and at once hurried back inside for a loaf of bread. Stepping back outside, Hans waved that loaf and called out “Bruno, Bruno.” The bear quickly lost interest in the two guardsmen and loped back to Kludou and into his pen.
Brad Bertelli is a published author of four books on Florida and Florida Keys history. As well as operating Historic Upper Keys Walking Tours, he is s the curator of the Keys History & Discovery Center, located at the Islander Resort. His column will appear every other week in The Reporter. Reach Brad with comments and questions at WhyPanic@aol.com.