Sloppy Joe's Bar
|Location||Key West, Florida, United States|
|NRHP reference No.||06000957|
|Added to NRHP||November 1, 2006|
The official beginning of what would become Sloppy Joe's Bar, the famous and infamous Key West saloon, was December 5, 1933—the day Prohibition was repealed. The bar was destined to go through two name changes and a sudden change of location before it would become Sloppy Joe's seen by millions of visitors to Florida's southernmost outpost.
In Key West, being a bastion of free thinkers even in the thirties, Prohibition was looked on as an amusing exercise dreamed up by the government, and Joe Russell was just one of the enterprising individuals who operated an illegal Speak Easy on Front Street. Even Ernest Hemingway, who made Key West his home at the time, slipped over to Russell's on occasion to buy illicit bottles of Scotch and the two struck up an enduring friendship.
When the government's Great Experiment ended in a dismal failure, Joe Russell moved his business to Greene Street and became a legitimate saloon-keeper-proprietor of the Blind Pig, a droll rundown building that Russell leased for three dollars a week.
The rowdy, come-as-you-are saloon was renamed the Silver Slipper upon the addition of a dance floor; but that did not matter: it remained a place of shabby discomfort, good friends and gambling, fifteen-cent whiskey, and ten-cent shots of gin.
It was Hemingway, a favorite patron of Russell's bar from the start, who encouraged its name change to Sloppy Joe's. The new name was adopted from Jose Garcia Rios Havana Club selling liquor and iced seafood. Because the floor was always wet with melted ice, his patrons taunted Jose (Joe) with running a sloppy place, Sloppy Joe’s, and the name stuck.
In its early days in Key West, Sloppy Joe's boasted several trademark "fixtures" besides Hemingway. There was "Big" Skinner, the hearty Bartender who tipped the scales at 300 pounds and served Sloppy Joe's customers for more than two decades. Big Skinner was captured by Erik Smith a WPA-era artist, along with Russell and Hemingway, in a famous mural that hangs in Sloppy Joe’s today titled "Hemingway and Friends".
Corner of Greene and Duval Street since 1937
Sloppy Joe's migrated across the street to its present location on May 5, 1937. The move was occasioned by a rent increase that Joe Russell refused to pay: from three dollars a week to a whopping four dollars. Luckily, the former Victoria Restaurant owned by Spanish emigrant Juan Farto was vacant. Located at the corner of Duval and Greene Streets, the building had been built in 1917 and incorporated beautiful Cuban tile work, busily whirring ceiling fans, and jalousie doors. Joe Russell paid $2,500 for it.
In true Key West fashion, the bar never actually closed during the transition—customers simply picked up their drinks and carried them, along with every piece of furniture in the place, down the block to 201 Duval Street. Service resumed with barely a blink. The new Sloppy Joe's boasted the longest bar in town. Behind the bar, in the back room, were gambling and the requisite pool tables. Skinner had pride of place above his new long curved bar. The bat that Skinner used to control his patrons now hangs on the wall.
Joe Russell was a Conch, born and raised in Key West. Conch is the name given to Key West natives—a name that derived from that of the tough, tasty mollusk found in the surrounding waters. Russell was a charter boat captain, rum runner, Hemingway's boat pilot, and the author's fishing companion for twelve years. In his company, Papa once caught an astonishing fifty-four Marlin in 115 days. Hemingway called him "Josie Grunts" and used him as the model for Freddy, the owner of Freddy's Bar and captain of the Queen Conch in To Have and Have Not.
When Joe officially opened the bar, Hemingway and his "Mob" of cohorts were enthusiastic regular customers. In fact, the author once called himself a co-owner or silent partner in the enterprise. The "Mob" was composed of some of the literary lights of the day as well as a variety of famous and infamous local residents: John Dos Pasos, Waldo Pierce, J.B. Sullivan, Hamilton Adams, Captain Eddie Saunders, Henry Strater. They wrangled, drank, and philosophized the days away, never knowing they were building a legend.
When Hemingway left Key West in 1939, he left a number of personal effects stored in a house next to Sloppy Joe's. After the house was sold, the effects were moved into the back room behind the bar at Sloppy Joe's. They remained there until 1962, a year after Hemingway's death, when his widow (fourth wife Mary Welsh Hemingway) opened the room and took possession of them, finding uncashed royalty checks, unfinished manuscripts, sections of original manuscript of “To Have and Have Not,” letters, and personal items. Some of the memorabilia was given to the then-owner of the bar, Stan Smith, to be displayed. One of the items was the snow skis that hang in the bar today.
Joe Russell died June 20, 1941 of a heart attack, he was 53 years old. At the time Russell and Ernest Hemingway had been fishing in Cuba for three weeks, Hemingway telephoned Joe Russell Jr. to tell him of his father’s death. He is buried in the Key West Cemetery.
Sloppy Joe’s was purchased September 8, 1978 by Sid Snelgrove and Jim Mayer and has been owned by the two families since that time.
Open 365 days a year, each day begins at 9:00 am (noon on Sundays). Sloppy Joe’s has four complimentary divisions: bar, food, entertainment, and the Retail Store. The bar offers live music on stage every day Noon to 2:00am and dancing. The performers offer a wide range of music styles and comical entertainment.
Just as in Joe Russell's day, hospitable Bartenders welcome patrons at virtually all hours of the day and night.
The main Bar structure was built in 1917; and the second building, which houses the Kitchen and Joe’s Tap Room, was built in 1892.
Joe’s Tap Room is attached to Sloppy Joe’s. Open daily at Noon, Joe’s Tap Room has the same food menu as Sloppy Joe’s and offers variety of crafted beers on tap.
The bar is the site of the annual Ernest Hemingway Look-Alike contest, started in 1981.
On November 1, 2006, it was added to the National Register of Historic Places.
- Joe “Sloppy Joe” Russell (1889–1941), original owner, nickname Josie Grunts
- Joe Russell Jr.
- Lillian Spencer
- Mama Joe and Papa Joe “Slim” Galaski (leased)
- Stan and Marcy Smith (1960–78)
- Snelgrove and Mayer families (1978 to present)
Five years ago, he wrote from that place down there in the south—what's it called ... uh ... Shangri-La, El Dorado ... oh, Sloppy Joe's—what, what is the name of that place? *laughs* Oh, all right Xanadu.— Jedediah Leland, Citizen Kane
The Silver Slipper dance hall adjacent to Sloppy Joe's, painted in the 1930s by Waldo Peirce
- Key West iconic bar comes to Daytona Beach Orlando Sentinel, February 1, 2010
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