When I first moved to Florida more than 30 years ago, my husband and I lived for several years in Cortez, a tiny fishing village in Manatee County. It was happenstance; the cottage we found for rent there was affordable, and we liked the closeness to the beaches.
But we had no idea of the history or nature of Cortez, and apparently some others shared that ignorance. In those days, I frequently found that when I mentioned my Cortez address (then, as now, all mail was delivered to post office boxes rather than homes), people got a puzzled look on their faces, thinking I simply meant Cortez Road. It was as if many simply drove over the bridge linking the peninsula of Cortez to the island communities of Bradenton Beach and Anna Maria Island without realizing it was there.
Many Cortezians probably didn’t mind being overlooked by the outside world. The village, only about five square miles in all (and about evenly divided between land and water), was mostly settled in the late 1880s and ’90s by closely linked families from North Carolina (as I lived there, the names Fulford, Bell, Taylor, Jones, Green and Guthrie became familiar through repetition). It was originally named Hunter’s Point, becoming Cortez in 1895, when the U.S. Post Office arrived. Even today, this little outpost of hard-working fishermen is tightly knit (some might say insular) and fiercely protective of its traditions and independence.
Old-timers will tell you proudly how Cortez was the only community in the United States that required no federal aid during the Depression years, subsisting on plentiful catches of fish and bartering for fruits and vegetables with local growers. And if you can find a real old-timer, he or she may tell you the tale of the big 1921 hurricane that destroyed nearly everything along the waterfront with its storm surge and 100 mph winds. (Left standing were the general store and the old Albion Inn, the latter now the site of the U.S. Coast Guard station.)
But despite storms and struggles over the years, or the occasional impact of a bout of red tide, for decades the men of Cortez went out in their boats with their big nets, bringing back tons of mullet for smoking and selling. Cortez had its own little schoolhouse (now a maritime museum), its own church and stores, and, eventually, its own celebration of all things seafood, the commercial fishing festival held each February, along with a designation on the National Register of Historic Places marking it as the last working fishing village on the Gulf coast.
Over time, it also drew some new residents, including artist Linda Molto, who moved to Cortez in 1983 from Orlando. “I came over the Cortez bridge, saw the little houses there, and just fell in love with it all,” Molto recalls. “The first time I went looking for a house there, nothing was for sale [most homes in the village tend to stay within the family for generations]. But the second time, I got lucky.” She found a house next to the Church of God parsonage that was for sale by the owner—along with a little cottage next to it to serve as her studio.
Since then, at least a handful of other working artists have settled in Cortez, because, she says, “Artists like to live in unusual places.” Molto quickly became active in preserving Cortez’s heritage, helping to prevent the demolition of a historic home near her own and eventually serving as co-director (and this year as director) of the annual fishing festival.
The biggest change to the long-cherished Cortez way of life came when the state of Florida banned the fishermen’s traditional mullet nets in the mid-1990s to help protect some declining fish populations.
“Basically, the net ban killed off the fishing industry as it had existed for 100 years in Cortez,” says Mark Green, a descendant of one of the early fishing families. “Almost all the Cortez fishermen were using small local boats; they would go out at night or by day and come back in a matter of hours, the same way their fathers and grandfathers had done it.”
Deprived of their traditional nets (originally made of cotton and carefully repaired over the years), many fishermen were forced to take other jobs or move away altogether; others pursued fish farther out to sea, where they could hunt for fish on long lines—longer, more dangerous journeys like the one depicted in the movie The Perfect Storm (based on a true story that involved a seasonal Cortez fisherman, although not in local waters.) There is still some bait fishing, and a few Cortezians turned their hands to shrimping, but no more do the nets come in bearing huge loads of fresh mullet.
With fishing hauls and paychecks reduced, the village switched its emphasis to attracting tourists, particularly ecotourists. You can now find more sailors like Capt. Kathe taking out paying visitors for dolphin and manatee watching or sandbar hopping and snorkeling. And Cortez residents, ever resilient, also created festivals to bring tourists to town to spur the economy—a yearly folk art fest, for example.
But Cortez residents are careful of just how their village adapts to changing times. On the northern side of Cortez Road, a wave of development that began when I still lived there, back in the ’80s, continued in the early 1990s, with several gated communities bearing names like Cove Sound and Mariner’s Cove and boasting amenities like boat slips and tennis courts. (The name of one, Smuggler’s Landing, is probably not appreciated by the natives, although when I lived there tales of drug smuggling and arrests that had taken place in the 1970s were still common gossip).
To prevent such development from spreading to yet more environmentally sensitive waterfront land, in 1991 the Cortez Village Historical Society and the Organized Fishermen of Florida combined forces as the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage to spearhead the purchase of 100 acres along Sarasota Bay. The result: The F.I.S.H. Preserve, situated in a fisheries habitat Cortezians had always fondly referred to as “the kitchen.” Proceeds of the annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival benefit the preserve, which will eventually include a system of kayaking and walking trails.
Longtime residents remain wary of new building; signs supporting proposed Amendment 4, requiring that citizens vote on substantial growth and development plans, sprouted beside the crab traps in yards there before last month’s elections.
On the historic south side of the highway, where we lived in our little cottage, most of the houses (a blend of rustic wood frames and stone cottages, many festooned with ceramic starfish or mermaids), the fishing boats (both at the docks and sitting in residents’ yards, awaiting repairs), and the seafood restaurants (casual and boasting only the freshest catch) today seem much the same as they did when we made our home there. It’s no wonder this picturesque setting has served as a backdrop for at least four Hollywood films (Great Expectations, A Flash of Green, Out of Time and Palmetto); whenever the call comes for a fishing village that summons up old Florida, Cortez seems to be the site of choice.
Take a stroll through the village on a lovely, clear day, as I did recently, and you may feel as if you’re on a movie set. The historic part of the village is only a few blocks long, and if you bring along the walking map from the Cortez Village Historical Society (you can find one online at cortezvillage.org), you’ll be able to pick out every pioneer home, fish house and community gathering spot along the way.
Down by the docks, you’ll still see men working on their boats (stop by the long-established Taylor Boatworks near the Cortez Kitchen restaurant and you may even get to lend a hand), and you can also admire the last remaining net camp, a small shack where fishermen who didn’t own houses in the village could stay between trips out to sea. (It’s a frequent photo op.) A couple of old and lovingly restored stone cottages may catch your eye; one of them happens to belong to this magazine’s art director, who can recall shopping for mullet in the living room there when she was a child.
Set aside at least an hour to tour the maritime museum in the old schoolhouse; the docents there are well informed and the historic photos and exhibitions trace the whole story of Cortez, from prehistoric times to today. Be sure to dive into a fresh grouper sandwich, polished off with a cool beverage, at the picnic tables along the docks of the Star Fish Company Restaurant, where pelicans perch nearby awaiting the arriving fishermen and their catches. (Please don’t feed the birds!) Save room for a cone from Tyler’s Ice Cream, located in Cortez’s own tiny shopping plaza, just steps from the post office and the cozy Cortez Café.
And, if you have the time, bring your fishing pole and bait and take your chances, as the people of Cortez have for more than a century, on the bounty of the sea.
Planning Your Visit
Cortez is great to explore any time, but especially during these events.
The 29th Annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival, running along 119th Street West from the Florida Maritime Museum to Cortez Bait & Seafood, takes place Feb. 19 and 20. It draws more than 20,000 visitors eager to view nautical arts and crafts, listen to live music including bluegrass and folk, and sample shrimp, oysters and, of course, the smoked mullet for which Cortez is famous. Admission $2; kids under 12 free. Shuttle service provided from Cortez Commons Shopping Center.
The Sixth Annual Florida Gulf Coast Small Craft Festival, April 15-17, also at the Maritime Museum. Includes paddle races for canoes and kayaks, rowing races for fixed or sliding seat boats, regattas for all classes, meals and a general “messabout” on the docks and in the water. Info: (941) 708-6120.
The Fifth Annual Cortez Village Folk Art Festival occurs each November (2011 date TBA) at the Maritime Museum. Live music, seafood, exhibits and arts and crafts; admission free.
For more info about any of these events, visit cortezvillage.org.
What to See
The Florida Maritime Museum, at 4415 119th St. W. (941-708-6120). The museum (at right), opened in December 2007, has been restored from the village’s beloved 1912 brick Cortez schoolhouse. On the day I visited, I was lucky to have as my guide Cortez native (and a member of one of Cortez’s longtime fishing families) Sam Bell, a font of information on all things Cortezian. Bell went to school in the building where he now leads tours, and he describes an idyllic life growing up in this unique village. He can also point to the historic photos of students and teachers on the walls, dating from every decade up to the school’s closing in 1961, and name practically every individual. And Bell has a sense of the larger history of the area, portrayed here in exhibits featuring fishing dugouts, nets, commercial harvesting and the earliest inhabitants of the area, the Native Americans.
Here, you can also find T-shirts, artwork and books for sale; the latter include personal histories like Cortez Then and Now, Finest Kind, a Celebration of A Florida Fishing Village, and, naturally, a cookbook for all that fresh seafood, What’s Cooking in Cortez. Behind the museum building lies the F.I.S.H. Preserve, along with an authentic chickee hut, picnic tables and the still-to-be-fully restored Bratton-Burton Store, the first store in Cortez, dating from 1890.
Taylor Boatworks, 12304 46th Ave., (941) 794-2802. This working, full-service boat-yard at the end of 119th Street West includes a little museum featuring original hand tools used in boat building and occasional demonstrations of the craft; call ahead for info.
Where to Stay and Eat
There are no motels in Cortez itself (there are some nearby in Holmes Beach and Bradenton), but there are several historic homes available for vacation rental, including the Capt. Billy Fulford House, the William Guthrie Home or the Taylor Homes of Cortez. A few websites worth scouting: vrbo.com, homeaway.com, and vacationrentals411.com.
Cortez Café, 12108 Cortez Road W., (941) 792-0030. Breakfast (omelettes, pancakes, grits and more), lunch (burgers, sandwiches, gyros, etc.) and plenty of conversation at the local diner, in business for 50 years.
Cortez Kitchen, 4528 119th St. W., (941) 798-9404. Lunch and dinner (peel & eat shrimp, steamer pots, grouper sandwiches), happy hours Tuesdays through Thursdays; live music on weekends.
Seafood Shack, 4110 127th St. W., (941) 794-1235. Seafood (of course), plus steaks, burgers, wings and salads. Lunch and dinner, overlooking the Intracoastal Waterway, marina and the country’s only floating wedding chapel.
Star Fish Company, 12306 46th Ave. W., (941) 794-1243. Fresh-off-the-boat local seafood, fried, grilled, blackened or sautéed, plus cole slaw, hush puppies and more. Seafood market stocks she crab soup, hot sauces and condiments. Lunch and dinner Tuesday through Saturday; lunch only Sunday and Monday. Bring cash; they don’t take credit cards.