Keys Voices: Reminiscing with Harriet Stokes

 

Harriet Stokes, owner of Largo Lodge, proudly shows off her orchid garden at her quaint Key Largo property. Photos by Belinda Serata.
Harriet Stokes, owner of Largo Lodge, proudly shows off her orchid garden at her quaint Key Largo property. Photos by Belinda Serata.

 

 

Stokes takes a moment to enjoy the lushly landscaped grounds at Largo Lodge.
Stokes takes a moment to enjoy the lushly landscaped grounds at Largo Lodge.

 

 

The late Harriet Stokes, only the third owner of Largo Lodge since it opened in Key Largo in the late 1940s, remembered the sleepy years of the Florida Keys.

“I bought Largo Lodge between 1967 and 1968,” Stokes said in a January 2007 interview. “The road Largo Lodge is on was a narrow road back then. We could sit right in the middle of it, read the paper and not be bothered by cars or people.”

Although the Florida Keys are much more populated now, maintaining the destination’s laid-back atmosphere was important to Stokes and something she strived for at her property.

It was originally conceived as a small casino, so the first owner built cottages to house the gamblers. Many casino visitors were troops from Florida training camps, readying for World War II, who needed a release from their military duties.

“The troops trained in Florida because of the year-round good weather, so the owner figured with a card table and some cards they could get a game going,” Stokes said.

Stokes had a wealth of memories of her history in Key Largo – including the Key Largo Chamber of Commerce meetings the group held in her back yard.

“That’s how we started. We put a trailer near the road and we used that as our first chamber office,” Stokes said. “We had an agreement with the land owner that, if we fed her cat, she would allow us to use the property the trailer was on as our visitor center.”

She also recalled the regular blackouts that occurred in the late 1960s because of area thunderstorms – especially one in 1968.

“The editor of ‘The Atlanta Journal Constitution’ and Charles Portis, who wrote ‘True Grit,’ the novel that became a John Wayne classic, were guests at the lodge then and I remember them staying up all night during the blackout, shining their headlights in my garden,” commented Stokes.

Many politicians also stayed at Largo Lodge when they needed a quiet place to relax.

While Stokes prided herself on keeping the Old Florida feel at Largo Lodge, which comprises seven units housed on the property’s three acres of land, she said maintaining that look was a challenge.

“Because of the décor in our rooms, I often have to shop on Miami Beach to find the Art Deco look that works,” she said.

The property still uses pea rock for its driveway, which she feels enhances the atmosphere, and they continue to plant trees to keep the lodge quiet.

“Our driveway is very beautiful and we make the landscaping this way to keep the noise level down,” Stokes explained.

A Midwesterner who married a South Floridian back in the late 1940s, Stokes saw a world of changes during her decades in the Keys.

“I don’t think people realize how primitive it was back then, particularly the openness and the electricity going out,” she said. “Where we are now is a long way from the 1957 Chevy that brought me here.”

Editor’s Note: Harriet Stokes passed away at her home Sept. 27, 2009. Largo Lodge continues to operate as a small, personalized resort, ascribing to the laidback island atmosphere she so much treasured. She may be gone in body, but her spirit lives on.

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