Closer to the rum-rich port of Havana than to mainland America, liquor was hardly a scarcity in Key West during the Prohibition years. While stories abound and remnants of those former days of illicit drinking can still be found in the southernmost city, evidence of illegal drinking establishments in the Upper Keys can prove more difficult to discern.
With that being said, notable locales serving libations prior to the repeal of the Volstead Act in 1933 were in operation in the Upper Keys. Mabel’s Place, The Tavern Tea Room, and The Rustic Inn are three examples.
Coincidentally (or not), two of these three businesses became established at about the same time the 1928 incarnation of the Overseas Highway opened to traffic traveling between Key West and the mainland. While the trip to Key West required a 40-mile ferry ride between Lower Matecumbe and the Lower Keys, the Upper Keys proved significantly more accessible.
For thirsty travelers leaving the mainland, the first of the three speakeasies along the dusty, bumpy road was Mabel’s Place. The building was constructed in 1926 by Ed and Fern Butters who opened a small restaurant and motel called the Key Inn. However, after experiencing hurricanes in 1926 and 1928, the Butters decided to sell and sold the property to Mabel Harris. Harris would change the name to Mabel’s Place, and though still offering food and lodging, she reportedly added women, gambling and alcohol to the menu.
Once Mabel’s was up and running she found out she needed help and called home to Chicago to ask her brother Harry if he was interested in moving to Key Largo. Harry said yes. His arrival would forever alter Monroe County history.
After working with Mabel, Harry moved south to Tavernier and found work with Hugh “Mac” McKenzie at his Tavern Store. Mac, too, arrived in the Florida Keys in 1928, settling in Tavernier with his bride Hazel and a reported $5 between them. A teacher in Miami before moving to the Keys, one of Mac’s early Tavernier jobs was managing the Tavern Tea Room. During the Prohibition years, “tea room” was code for an establishment selling alcohol. For Mac, like Harry, the tea room provided a stepping stone to something greater. Where Mac would become a defining force in the construction of a modern Tavernier, Harry would make a name for himself in Monroe County politics.
The pivotal point for Harris came after he began driving one of McKenzie’s Standard Oil trucks, making home deliveries of oil and ice to a community that would become the base of his constituency. Because of his job, Harry was invited into a great many homes where he shook a great many hands. The personal connections he made would serve him well when he entered local politics. Harris would go on to serve as both a County Commissioner and as the mayor of Monroe County. When he passed in 1978, his ashes were briefly interred within the crypt at the Florida Keys Memorial before being removed and buried at Key Largo’s Harry Harris Park.
The last speakeasy or tea room on the list was Upper Matecumbe’s Rustic Inn. Built by Berlin Felton at some point after the 1928 phone book was printed, the Rustic Inn was operated by O.D. King. At the Rustic Inn, it was possible to fill your automobile with gasoline, dine on a green turtle steak, and enjoy a cool libation.
These days, there are nothing more than stories, scattered pictures, and a couple of vintage postcards left to document the existence of Mabel’s Place. The building, once located on what is today considered CR-905 (a mile or so south of Card Sound Road’s three-way stop), was torn down decades ago.
The building that once housed the Tavern Tea Room is still right where it was first constructed. Today it is the blue building abutting the Tavernier Hotel. As for The Rustic Inn, it was all but destroyed during the Category 5 1935 Labor Day Hurricane responsible for taking nearly 500 lives.
During the storm, Edney and Edna Parker and their family sought shelter at the inn. Edney remembered, “We were south of the hotel (Hotel Matecumbe—the locale of MA’s Fish Camp today), about three-quarters of a mile, and I didn’t know who was left. I didn’t see a sign of a house anywhere, and no trees… There was a little piece of Mr. King’s filing station left, and Mr. King was in it. We went there and got under shelter, standing in water to our ankles all day.”
Today the site of the former Rustic Inn is home to the Green Turtle Inn at mile marker 81.