Cortez: Legacy of a maritime village
SUN PHOTO/CINDY LANE
Nets are stored on the Cortez docks
outside A.P. Bell Fish Co., whose fleet sports names ending in Belle.
CORTEZ – Cortez is hanging on to its history, come hell or high water.
High water comes with the territory for the commercial fishing village, situated on the shores of Sarasota Bay. But hell comes in the form of regulations that are relegating more and more of the fishing industry to the history books.
While a new longline gear ban threatens to kill off grouper fishing in Cortez, still reeling from the 1995 net ban that crippled mullet fishing, the community quietly prepares for next February’s Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival for the 28th year in a row.
After netting enough funds to buy most of the property in the 95-acre Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage (FISH) Preserve on the edge of town, the show will go on.
So will the village with its salty characters, and its history of survival.
Florida Maritime Museum
The Florida Maritime Museum, housed in a 1912-era schoolhouse, marks the eastern entrance to Cortez at 119th Street and Cortez Road. Inside is the story of a way of life fast disappearing from the nearby docks and yards piled high with crab traps and nets.
The Cortez Rural Graded School was built in 1912, replacing an older, one-room wooden structure that is now a nearby home. In 1921, it served as a hurricane shelter, saving many residents during the worst storm that ever hit Cortez.
The school operated until 1961, when it was leased to an art school.
Artist Robert Sailors, a master weaver, bought the building in 1974 and used it as his home and studio until his death in 1998. The following year, Manatee County purchased the property, then restored the building and reopened it in 2006 as a museum and community center.
Cortez natives who had attended the school were honored at the grand opening, where netmaker Thomas "Blue" Fulford laughingly recalled being whipped both at school and at home for walking through a puddle with his shoes on.
The museum is one of nearly 100 buildings in the village listed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Cortez Historic District.
Also on the museum grounds is the 1907 Asa Harmon Pillsbury Boatshop, relocated from Snead Island in 2007. The first building constructed at the Snead Island Boatworks, it was operated by Edward Pillsbury and his son, Asa Pillsbury, who earned notoriety for his craftsmanship in building small skiffs and runabouts used for fishing in Cortez.
When the property was sold to E.E. Bishop in the late 1930s, the Pillsbury family loaded the boatshop onto a truck bed and moved it to their home three miles away, where they used it as a machine shop to service the Pillsbury dredging company’s equipment.
When the Pillsbury family subdivided its property in 2003, one of the new property lines was drawn through the boatshop. Rather than see it torn down, Albert Pillsbury donated the building to Manatee County.
In the 1890s, William C. Bratton built the first commercial building at Hunter’s Point, the original name of Cortez. The building served as a general store, steamboat wharf and U.S. Post Office.
The original P.O. Box 1 is used today by Star Fish Co., the oldest continuous business in Cortez, according to Allen Garner, president of FISH and the village’s unofficial historian, who once had the coveted P.O. Box when he owned Star Fish Co.
In 1895, the post office and village names changed to Cortez, although stories differ on how the name was chosen – some say someone mixed up Spanish explorer Hernando DeSoto, who landed in nearby Bradenton in 1539, and his contemporary, Spanish explorer Hernando Cortez, who did not.
Five years later, hotel rooms were added to the post office and store, creating the Albion Inn, the only waterfront building in Cortez to survive the hurricane of 1921.
The inn closed in 1974 and the property was sold to the U.S. Coast Guard. Community efforts spearheaded by the Cortez Village Historical Society and the Organized Fishermen of Florida raised $12,000 through strawberry shortcake sales and other fundraisers, and saved the store from demolition in 1991. The store was moved from its site near the new Coast Guard station to the museum in 2006.
Still under renovation, the store will become the Cortez Family Life Museum, featuring household objects, birth and death records and videotaped memories of Cortez residents.
The store also will serve as the venue for the annual Cortez Natives Picnic and the annual Cortez Folk Music Festival, keeping smoked mullet and smoking fiddles alive in Cortez.
Behind the store is the FISH Preserve, where hikers and kayakers can follow a trail of mangroves along Sarasota Bay, known as the "kitchen" to residents whose parents and grandparents five generations back relied on it for food.
The preserve is a permanent buffer between the turn-of-the-last-century village and ever-encroaching coastal Florida development. But the preserve itself is threatened from within by a couple who owns a parcel in the middle of the preserve and refuses to sell it to FISH, planning instead to build a home there.
Down the street from the schoolhouse-turned-museum, the village’s original schoolhouse, built in 1895, is now a private home at 12016 45th Ave. W.
The building is the oldest one-room schoolhouse in Manatee County and was constructed two lots west of its present site, where it was relocated when the 1912 schoolhouse was built.
Augusta Williams was the first teacher in the school, which also served as the fishing village’s community center and church before it became a home to several subsequent owners.
It was restored in 2004 by Johanna Trimboli, a former Longboat Key resident and niece of Sarasota realtor Michael Saunders.
The one-room Cortez jail was built in 1912 with tabby, a mixture of lime and shells, and remains on its original site on what is now private property at 4415 124th St. Court.
The only person ever to be officially incarcerated in the jail was Jap Thigpen, a fighter and drinker whose wife, Bessie, broke him out of the jail with an axe one night, afraid he would freeze. To her credit, she had asked permission to take him home and return him the next day, but was refused. The next morning, she delivered him back to the jail, as promised.
The jail was built six months after Cortez became a town, with its own local government and law enforcement.
According to Manatee County records, Cortez was incorporated on June 8, 1912, with S.J. Sanders serving as mayor, A. Willis, A.F. Taylor, J.E. Guthrie, A.D. Millis, W.C. Bratton, T.C. Rowell and W.T. Fulford as aldermen and A.M. Guthrie as clerk. The town marshal was George Brown and the deputy was Charles Lewis. Many of the men’s descendants still live in Cortez.
The village is no longer incorporated and is under Manatee County’s governance, but retains special code enforcement treatment to allow fishermen to keep gear on their property.
Cortez Trailer Park
In 1959, Harry Howey pulled into the Cortez Trailer Park in a 1955 Chevy with his wife, Dottie, their three kids, a dog and a U-Haul trailer. The couple ran the park for the next 30 years and he still lives there.
The waterfront park is one of the oldest in Manatee County, dating to 1935. Its community center is more than 100 years old and was once the detached kitchen of the Fulford Hotel in the 1880s.
Neighbors in the close-knit, 79-lot community at the foot of the Cortez Bridge, some who have lived there for 50 years, purchased the park in 2008 after a series of developers attempted to redevelop the park as condos and a marina.
The heart of the Cortez fishing village, the docks are a gathering place for working fishermen, tourists looking for fresh seafood and outdoor dining, and local characters like Chainsaw Charlie, who lives on a boat and carves wooden statues in the parking lot with a chainsaw.
The picturesque docks also have served as a backdrop for the band Shinedown’s hit music video "Second Chance" in 2009, the 2003 film "Out of Time," starring Denzel Washington, and many an artist’s canvas.
Overlooking the docks is the fishermen’s memorial, "Dedicated to Florida’s commercial fishermen past, present and future" on Oct 27, 2001. One plaque honors Cortez veterans lost during wartime: James C. Coarsey, Leroy R. Wilson, Warren A. Bell, James M. Campbell and William H. Posey.
Another honors Cortez commercial fishermen lost at sea: Don Akins, Joey Clavier, William "Billy" Elliott, Paul Right, Kevin Kurtice, Frank Lilquist, Michael "Bugsy" Moran, Dale "Murph" Murphy, Mark Rankin, Bobby Thompson, Lynn Tupin, Frank "Billy" Tyne Jr. and Warren "Bud" Wilson. Two of the men, Murphy and Tyne, are immortalized in the 2000 film "The Perfect Storm."
It’s the fishermen who are the heart of Cortez village.
They came with their sailboats from Cuba, North Carolina and elsewhere to settle the village in the late 1800s. A few years later, Nate Fulford installed a four-horsepower, water-cooled Barker engine on one of his skipjacks, the beginning of the end of sailboat fishing in Cortez.
The Cortez staple – mullet – along with trout, redfish, mackerel and pompano, were caught by inshore net fishermen. Offshore fisherman targeted grouper, snapper and reef fish. Shrimp, stone crab and blue crab also were harvested.
By 1910, 110 people lived in the village. The hurricane of 1921 devastated the village, then, in 1930, the mullet disappeared for eight years. Still, fishing families survived.
Several fish houses were built in the 1940s, when 65 Cortezians went off to war. Women went to work in fish houses and other jobs formerly held by men; some fishermen were deferred from the draft because they were considered essential food producers. Forty-five servicemen returned.
In 1947, a catastrophic red tide hit the area, killing millions of fish, but the village stuck it out until the fishery recovered over several years.
Gear began to change. Monofilament nets replaced cotton nets that required drying in net camps a few hundred yards offshore from the docks. Outboard motors replaced inboard motors, allowing fishermen to fish shallower waters. Packaging innovations and large freezers allowed for development of new markets as far away as Japan, where mullet roe is a prized delicacy.
Regulations changed too. Pollution, coastal development, habitat destruction and commercial and recreational harvesting had begun to affect the productivity of local waters, resulting in increased regulations and a reduced harvest.
The Organized Fishermen of Florida (OFF) was founded in 1967 to combat overregulation, and fisherman and netmaker Thomas "Blue" Fulford was elected as president and served for more than 20 years.
Despite their efforts, in 1995, a state constitutional amendment banning gill nets became effective that prohibited the use of the traditional nets in bay waters. Fish production declined 60-80 percent, and the five fish houses in Cortez dwindled to two, which are still operating today on the catches of fishermen who continue to persevere.
Time will tell what the 2009 ban on longline gear will do to the remaining Cortez fishing industry. But based on its history, one thing is certain. Somehow, in some form, the village will survive.