Pitt earns Florida Folk Heritage Award
CINDY LANE | SUN
The Esperanza was rescued by Bob Pitt from its status
as a yard ornament wreck. It once brought Cuban
refugees to Florida.
CORTEZ – Whenever you see Bob Pitt, you can bet there’s a boat nearby.
Pitt has been awarded a Florida Folk Heritage Award for his traditional boatbuilding skills, and plans to travel to Tallahassee in May to receive the honor from the Florida Secretary of State.
The award is conferred on “outstanding folk artists and folk culture advocates who have made longstanding contributions to the folk cultural resources of the state,” according to the Department of State’s Division of Historical Resources, which sponsors the program.
For eight years, Pitt supervised the volunteer crew of boatbuilders at the Florida Maritime Museum’s boatbuilding shop in the FISH Preserve in Cortez, nationally recognized for craftsmanship. He remains active in the historic fishing village, building boats with volunteers at the former fire station and serving as president of the Florida Gulf Coast Traditional Small Craft Association.
Dr. Tina Bucuvalas, curator of Arts and Historical Resources in Tarpon Springs, nominated Pitt for the award.
“Pitt has demonstrated a lifelong interest in preserving maritime history by teaching and practicing disappearing skills,” Bucuvalas wrote. “His profound knowledge of regional boat building has not been learned from books, but was passed down to him from knowledgeable, skilled boat builders and refined through a lifetime of experience.”
All in the family
The saltwater in his veins comes from a family of shipbuilders and captains who lived from the 1750s to 1868, when they arrived in Key West on his great-great-grandfather's schooner, Azorian. His mother's family was immersed in the culture of the islands of Florida, Cuba and the Bahamas, where his great-grandmother was born.
Pitt was born in Sarasota in 1953 and moved to the Bradenton area in 1956, attending Manatee County public schools until ninth grade and graduating from Prew School in Sarasota. He grew up near 85 acres of piney woods and palmetto and spent his childhood in Florida scrubs and along coastlines with his father, collecting scallops and glass repairs at age seven, eventually working at Durbeck Yachts. A liveaboard, he augmented his skills with boat carpentry while apprenticing with a Welsh shipwright.
He and his wife, Cynthia, moved ashore to the old Manatee County village of Fogartyville in 1978 when their first child was born. Their house, built in 1885, had been the first church in Fogartyville.
Pitt’s father had worked with Charlie Fogarty, a descendant of Tole Fogarty, one of three brothers who settled the area in the 1860s. As a youngster, he lived in a house brought over on a barge from nearby Terra Ceia in 1945, where he had played near Bat Fogarty’s (Charlie’s grandfather’s) Boat Works. His grandmother, Naomi Mayolini, had known the Fogarty family from Key West, where she had been born in 1888.
In 1993, the Fogarty family donated Bat Fogarty’s Boat Works to the Manatee Village Historical Park, a county historical site. When it opened, employees did not have enough maritime knowledge to identify many of the tools, so Pitt was brought on board to identify tools and boat parts. He stayed on for 12 years to refurbish the museum, develop a curriculum for school tours and serve as a volunteer.
In 2005, Pitt began working for Manatee County as the volunteer/education coordinator at the Florida Maritime Museum at Cortez. During his tenure, they logged 8,300 volunteer hours per year building museum displays and boats distinctive to the area.
Some of the most culturally significant boats were the Sallie Adams, an 1890s design Cortez 21-foot mullet boat; the Esperanza, a 16-foot Cuban refugee boat, which came into Pitt’s possession decades after it brought a group of Cuban refugees to Florida; the Anna Menendez, a 24-foot Spanish longboat built for DeSoto National Memorial historical reenactments; and the Elizabeth Ring, an 18-foot Bat Fogarty sailing skiff built for three people built to camp and cruise Florida rivers.
They also implemented an outreach program to display the boats throughout Florida and as far as Pennsylvania, Maine and Maryland, garnering national recognition and admiration.