Ladies of the House

Ladies of the House:

Key West home ownership a challenge, history shows

Reprinted from the Citizen Newspaper.

December 2, 2017

Tracking Key West home ownership back in time takes patience and a passion for genealogy, a specialty of Karl Reutling’s, which comes in especially handy if tracking a line of females.

“Marital names change and Johnson was the thread that tied together Emeline Watlington’s last heirs,” said Reutling, a volunteer docent at the Oldest House Museum in Key West. “What’s significant for the mid-1800s is Emeline’s a woman property owner, without being a widow.”

Equally significant, she had seven daughters, at one time all ladies of the house at 322 Duval St., and she was the wife of Capt. Francis Watlington, whose history — a sea captain, a harbor master, a Florida State senator until he joined the Confederate navy in 1863 — is much better known than Emeline’s.

She and Francis married in New York in 1828, moved to Key West in the early 1830s and by 1863, Emeline had born Francis nine daughters, two had died and she had become a single parent.

Although she and Francis rented what is now a four-bedroom house from her New York-based sister and brother-in law (more unscrambling of last names), Francis was never the owner of the property purchased by the Herder family around 1840. Emeline, though, eventually owned it and passed it along to her daughters.

“You have to wonder how Emeline supported her family?” asked Andy Herdan, a student of Key West history and also a docent at the Oldest House Museum.

“Maybe she wasn’t paying her sister rent after Francis left in 1863 because the Herders (sister’s married name) transferred the property title to Emeline in 1868,” said Reutling.

“It’s more likely Emeline took in boarders — this house was one of eight that withstood the 1846 hurricane,” he said.

Reutling said it’s worth noting the 1912 Sanborn Map showed another building out back near the existing outdoor kitchen. This second structure is no longer on the 15,820-square-foot lot. But already with six daughters and located in the heart of town, where rebuilding after the 1846 hurricane shaped up, it’s possible the house enlarged with the Watlington family enough to double as a boarding house.

Research is ongoing, of course, not into just the family’s genealogy, but into the property’s structural evolution from the original 1 1/2-story house built in 1829 to the finished second-floor bedrooms and dormer additions that make up its configuration today.

“Women played key roles in Key West,” said Herdan. “For instance, the first lighthouse keeper, Michael Mabrity died is 1832 and his wife, Barbara Mabrity, succeeded him for more than 30 years.”

Chris Hamilton, administrator for Old Island Restoration Foundation said, “this just fits the unique and diverse island history; everyone is accepted here.”

Elizabeth Lillie Watlington, the last-born daughter in 1855, resided her entire life at 322 Duval St. She never married, was the likely caregiver for her mother, Emeline, until she died in 1881, then for her father, Francis, who returned to Key West in 1885 and lived with Lillie until he died in 1887.

Following Lillie’s death and her sister Mary Amanda Johnson in 1936, Emeline’s great-grandson Earle Saunders Johnson “was living there by 1940,” said Reutling. “When he died in 1972, Earl had no heirs, so Mrs. Austin of Islamorada bought the property.

“As the final woman to own 322 Duval St., she deeded it to the State of Florida, and it’s now preserved by Old Island Restoration Foundation.”

Maintaining an antique home in the tropics is still as challenging today as in Emeline’s era, though no ladies live at the Oldest House, and no one boards at the museum. But fundraising from OIRFs 58th annual house tour helps defray costs, and the first of four is scheduled for Dec. 27-28. Drop by the Oldest House Museum for details. Admission is free.

Barbara Bowers is a Key West Realtor and host of a radio talk show about owning and maintaining property in the Florida Keys. To suggest a home to be featured in the Keys Homes section, send an email to barbara@bbowers.com. Homes listed for sale may not be considered.