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The Tifton-Key West Connection:


Recently, I visited once again the Asa F. Tift home in Key West, my latest of several visits during the past 35 years. The old home built in 1851 is one of Key West’s top tourist attractions – not because Tift built it and lived there but because Ernest Hemingway acquired it and spent much of the 1930s there writing many of his seminal works.

Built with limestone mined on site, the grand old home is said to contain woodpine of course, which came from Asa Tift’s South Georgia property east of Albany where Tifton sits today. Asa, with his brother NelsonAlbany’s founder, eventually sold much of that piney-wooded property to their nephew Henry Harding Tift, who established a sawmill there.

The homesteads that sprung up around Tift’s sawmill began being referred to as “Tift’s Town.” This year, we mark the 150th anniversary of Henry Tift’s settlement in those woodsthat became Tifton, Ga.

Henry Tift’s uncle Asa was the eldest son of Capt. Amos Tift, one of Key West’s early settlers. Upon Amos Tift’s death, Asa and his brothers took over their father’s Key West store, expanding the business to include most of the Mallory Squarearea. They were successful merchants, ship owners, ship and mail agents, operated a large ice house, and had a large warehouse to support the wrecking industry.

Asa Tift was one of Key West’s premier salvage wreckers. In those days, the first wrecker who reached a ship that ran aground on the Florida reefcould claim the cargo, and Tift was often the first. He was an important figure in Key West’s history, and his bust is among those in Key West's Historic Memorial Sculpture Garden. An actor also portrays Asa Tift in the Key West Wreckers’ Museum.

On a recent sticky hot day, I found myself retracing steps from my past down Key West’s Whitehead Street to the “Tift-Hemingway House,” a place I first visited during the annual Hemingway Days Festival in 1987. In the intervening years, I have attended nighttime parties on the grounds of the old home, where I had my first taste of sushi, and even have saton the side of Hemingway’s swimming pool, the first in Key West, and dangled my feet in its warm waters under the twinkling night sky and swaying coconut palms.

Although Hemingway is no longer home – and hasn’t been for a long while – one can sometimes still feel his presence at 907 Whitehead St. His writing studio over a former carriage house is preserved, and some of his furniture remains.

But on this visit, I came seeking Asa Tift, whose portrait still hangs both inside and outside the home, now a museum. Tift had very few happy days there; his wife and childrendied from yellow fever within three years of the family moving into the Spanish Colonial-style house. By the time Hemingway bought the property in 1931, it was in disrepairfrom years of neglect and required much work.

No, Asa Tift is not there. He is buried in Magnolia Cemetery in Charleston, S.C. What does remain is a house where its occupants in the 19th and 20th centuries made an impact on their world, and a house that, in its timberand woodwork, retains a part of that which became Tifton.

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