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Tavern on the Key

Historical legends and theories are fine, but Jerry Wilkinson wants to know the real deal. Wherever he's lived, he's tried to find out as much as he can about the history of the place, and right now that place happens to be Tavernier, a tiny burg on Key Largo. The history buff wants information that can be confirmed and documented, and in the sleepy Upper Keys, it seems, no one has bothered to record much for posterity.

Plenty has been written about Miami and Key West history, but there's a gap in between, claims the 69-year-old Wilkinson, who keeps busy by trying to fill it in. "Heck, I'm retired," he says in a cheerful Southern drawl. "What else am I going to do?"

First of all he'd like to know why Tavernier has a French name, while just about everything else in the Keys sounds Spanish. A popular theory is that the name comes from the French buccaneer Jean Lafitte, who had an officer named Tavernier. But Wilkinson found a map from 1775 on which "Tavernier" appears, and Lafitte wasn't born until several years later. Another story holds that some shipwrecked sailors came ashore near the settlement and asked, "Is there a tavern 'ere?"

Needless to say, Wilkinson is still digging. But he'll share what he's found so far at a meeting of the South Florida Chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America this week in Davie.

The fourth-generation Floridian grew up on a farm in Lakeland and was a U.S. Air Force electronics engineer. He has lived in Coconut Grove and Miami Lakes. Now in Tavernier, he's president of the Historical Society of the Upper Keys.

He's also its primary researcher and scours the charts and writings of early European explorers for answers. For example, documents from the era of Ponce de Leon don't refer to the explorer's famous hunt for the Fountain of Youth. "Not that it didn't happen," allows Wilkinson. "I'm just saying there is no recorded evidence. For a pure historian, there needs to be something written, some tangible evidence."

Wilkinson has been collecting pieces of Upper Keys history since he moved there about ten years ago. He and his wife, Mary, eat their meals on the porch, because their dining room is filled with newspaper clippings, maps, and historical photos. One day he may compile it all into a book. Publishers probably aren't holding their breath, he admits, but at least people will have something to turn to with their questions about Tavernier.

-- Patti Roth

Jerry Wilkinson will speak June 18 at 8 p.m. at Florida Atlantic University Liberal Arts Building, 2912 College Ave., Davie. Admission is free. For more information on the talk, call the South Florida Chapter of the Archaeological Institute of America at 954-720-2774.

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Patti Roth

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