July 28th, 2015 by Piper Smith
Asa Tift was the elder son of Captain Amos Tift, one of the early settlers of Key West. Amos built a store in Key West that was taken over by Asa and his brothers on the death of their father. They expanded the business to include most of the Mallory Square area. They were successful merchants, ship owners, ship and mail agents, and had a large warehouse to support the wrecking industry. The wrecking industry on which the Tift’s based their fortune was the major source of income in the early days of Key West. Wreckers were required to save the crew, passengers, cargo and if possible the ships that accidentally ran afoul of the Florida reef. Asa built for himself the home on Whitehead Street in 1851, that was later purchased by Ernest Hemingway. Tift found out what is true throughout Florida– when the topsoil is removed you hit shale or limestone. Tift also found out the lot was sixteen feet above sea level. So he quarried the stone for the house right from the sight. He not only got the stone for the house but also ended up with the only basement in Key West that remains dry. Tift’s wife and two children died of yellow fever in 1854; then came the Civil War. Tift, a Confederate, moved to New Orleans to supervise construction of ironclad warships he designed. The ships were never completed. When Tift came home, he built a fountain in front of the house, shaped like one of his unfinished vessels. Tift later died in 1889.