CORTEZ – There is less fishing and more preservation in Cortez these days, but the success of an expanding museum complex and environmental preserve is bittersweet.
“We’ve got the Florida Maritime Museum, we’ve got the FISH Preserve, the festival is going strong, and we still have a community where we meet at the post office and stop and talk,” said Linda Molto, organizer of the Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival and co-author of “Cortez – Then and Now” with Cortez Village Historical Society (CVHS) founder Mary Fulford Green.
“But the museum developments are almost saying the real thing is over,” she said.
CVHS, founded in 1984, was reorganized last year by Green and a dozen other Cortezians to work on establishing two more museums in the historic complex, the Family Life Museum and the Military Museum.
CVHS was instrumental in having Cortez village established as a historic district on the National Register of Historic Places and as a historic neighborhood in the Manatee County comprehensive plan, as well as in restoring the Cortez Rural Graded School as the Florida Maritime Museum at Cortez and purchasing and moving the historic Bratton store to the complex.
The museum, operated by Manatee County, seems to be distancing itself from CVHS, said Green, who is disappointed that the county will not allow CVHS to open its Family Life Museum in the Bratton store as planned; the two-story store would require the installation of an elevator, destroying part of the store, if it was open to the public, according to the county.
Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage (FISH) board members also have said they feel a widening division between the museum and FISH, dating back to the unauthorized sale of a historic shrimp boat donated for preservation to the museum in 2010 by the Tupin/Fannon family.
FISH board member Plum Taylor said that because of the fiasco, her family had second thoughts about donating a skiff to the museum that was owned by her late husband, Alcee Taylor. His boat was installed at the museum earlier this month, on loan only.
FISH secretary Joe Kane said the growing schism in Cortez is a spiritual and mental one.
“We need to get the feeling that we are part of the museum and the museum is part of us,” he said.
The museum complex consists of several buildings on the eastern edge of the village, and other historic acquisitions scattered throughout the village.
Florida Maritime Museum at Cortez
The museum is the core of the historical preservation efforts in Cortez. Housed in the 1912 schoolhouse, it marks the eastern entrance to Cortez village at 119th Street and Cortez Road.
The Cortez Rural Graded School was built in 1912 and 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 opened it in 2006 as a museum.
This year marks the 100th birthday of the red brick 1912 Cortez Rural Graded School, which is now the Florida Maritime Museum at Cortez.
The school operated until 1961, when it was leased to an art school. Artist Robert Sailors bought the building in 1974 for his home and studio.
With help from the Cortez Village Historical Society, Manatee County purchased the property in 1999, restored the building and opened it in 2006 as a museum.
It has always been at the heart of the community, the site of fish fries, musical events, fishermen’s union meetings, local elections, even a contentious meeting last year on what to do about coyotes preying on village pets.
On Oct. 25, 1921, it saved villagers from a Category 3 hurricane with 115 mile-per-hour winds.
Doris Green was 6 years old when the storm hit. She recalled in her book, “Fog’s Comin’ In,” that she saw houses and boats floating by their Cortez home, which had been the village’s first 1895 one-room schoolhouse, now a residence at 12016 45th Ave. W.
The family piled into a skiff just before their house floated off its pine pier foundation and made it to the schoolhouse, where several neighbors were docked.
When the storm was over, nothing was left on the Cortez waterfront but pilings and the Albion Inn, part of which has been relocated to the schoolhouse museum complex.
To this day, villagers hold the schoolhouse to be the safest place to ride out a storm.
Other Cortez natives who attended the school also have vivid memories.
“My first grade class at Cortez Elementary School was small, five boys and one girl,” said Sam Bell, president of the Cortez Village Historical Society. “Our teacher was Miss Mae McCloud. Weather permitting, every Wednesday after school, she would load us in her little 1935 Chevy coupe with a rumble seat. She would drive us over the old wooden bridge to the drug store in Bradenton Beach and buy each of us a nickel ice cream cone. They don’t make ’em like that anymore. God bless her.”
Musician Richard Culbreath remembers daydreaming during class while gazing out the giant windows that overlook what is now the FISH Preserve.
Retired commercial fisherman Blue Fulford has a memory of being whipped at school, then again at home, for walking through a puddle with his shoes on.
“Everybody’s daddy had the right to whip you,” recalled Mark Taylor, who attended the school, as did his father.
When Taylor was a student, the schoolhouse was used as an auditorium and the classes were in World War II-style barracks. He recalled boys setting the nearby palmetto bushes on fire to chase the rattlesnakes out, then shooting the rattlesnakes with shotguns so they could play baseball in the schoolyard.
Green recalled classmates finding something else in the palmetto bushes – a load of moonshine.
“It was kind of a tough place to grow up, but it was a wonderful place to grow up,” Taylor said. “You can’t take away those memories.”
North of the museum is the 1907 Asa Harmon Pillsbury Boatshop, relocated from the Snead Island Boatworks in 2007.
The boatworks 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 off 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.
The Bratton store, also known as the Burton store, was built in the 1890s by William C. Bratton 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.
L.J.C. Bratton added hotel rooms onto the store in 1900, calling it the Albion Inn, after his son. The Edneys of North Carolina purchased the store and hotel in 1910, and gave it to their daughter, Bessie, and her husband, Joe Guthrie, who expanded the complex to a 24-room hotel. The Guthrie’s daughter, Elizabeth, became postmistress at age 18.
The building was the only one on the Cortez waterfront to survive the hurricane of 1921.
The inn closed in 1974 and the property was sold to the U.S. Coast Guard.
CVHS and the Organized Fishermen of Florida (OFF) 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 east side of the museum in 2006.
Behind the store is a historic cistern, used for drinking water in the early days of Cortez.
The store’s front porch is the venue for the monthly Music on the Porch series and the annual Cortez Folk Music Festival.
East of the Bratton store is the 95-acre 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 village and ever-encroaching coastal Florida development, but is threatened from within by a property owner who owns a parcel in the middle of the preserve and plans to build a home there.
The 66-year-old Monroe cottage, once at 304 Church St. in Bradenton Beach, was moved across the Cortez bridge to the FISH Preserve in 2011.
CVHS plans to renovate the cottage and create the Cortez Family Life Museum, which will feature household objects, birth and death records and photographs and videotaped memories of Cortez residents.
On the northern border of the FISH Preserve is a house restored as a boat shop, where volunteer boatbuilders make wooden boats mostly by hand on commission, with proceeds to FISH.
John Banyas, owner of N.E. Taylor Boat Works, donated the 92-year-old Harris house, once at 4521 120th St. W. in Cortez, to FISH last year. It was relocated to the FISH Preserve and is used for storage.
The former Church of God, 4511 124th St. W., has been renamed Fishermen’s Hall by FISH, which is renovating the historic one-room building as an event venue. It serves as a meeting place for the FISH board of directors. Rev. Kenneth Gill, former pastor of Longboat Island Chapel, asked earlier this month to rent the building on Sundays for church services.
Cortez Community Center
A former volunteer fire station, the community center is used as a shop for volunteer boat builders and as a meeting room and classroom for the Turner Maritime Challenge Program, a youth program established with a bequest from Jay K. Turner. The program is currently suspended while its curriculum is being revised.
In front of Star Fish Co., on the west side of the village, is the fishermen’s memorial, honoring Cortez commercial fishermen lost at sea: Don Akins, Joey Clavier, William “Billy” Elliott, Paul Kight, Kevin Kurtice, Frank Lilquist, Michael “Bugsy” Moran, Dale “Murph” Murphy, Mark Rankin, Bobby Thompson, Lynn L. Tupin, Frank “Billy” Tyne Jr., Warren “Bud” Wilson and Craig “Dutch” Lutz.
On a nearby plaque, Cortez veterans lost during wartime are remembered: James C. Coarsey, Leroy R. Wilson, Warren A. Bell, James M. Campbell and William H. Posey.
A historic net camp has been preserved on stilts in Sarasota Bay just offshore of the Cortez docks, where fishermen once spread cotton nets out to dry. The invention of monofilament nets made the practice obsolete.
Privately owned, the one-room Cortez jail is made of tabby, a mixture of lime and shells, and remains on its original site 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, Green said. To her credit, she had first 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.
Like the 1912 schoolhouse, it was built 100 years ago this year, six months after Cortez was incorporated.