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East County Thursday, Feb. 20, 2020 2 years ago

Cortez Village: Yesterday and Today

To the proud residents of Cortez Village, history is a family affair.
by: Su Byron Contributor

To the proud residents of Cortez Village, history is a family affair.

You don’t need a time machine to experience Old Florida. Just a car and directions to Cortez Village, an unspoiled slice of the Sunshine State that time (and developers) forgot. The village is a 10-block enclave bordering north Sarasota Bay. Great view. But no mega-mansions, condos or luxe hotels to block it. Just lazy streets lined with cracker cottages, seasoned fishing boats and dockside fish markets and restaurants. It’s a bustling Florida fishing village, not a Disney World simulation. No kidding. It’s the real deal, so be polite. The folks you’ll meet aren’t actors. They live and work here — and they didn’t get here yesterday. Many local families can even trace their roots to the 1920s. Some to the 1880s.


Walt (Tink) and Ralph Fulford mending fish nets in Cortez, circa 1954.

The Improbable History of Cortez, Florida

Once upon a time in the late 1800s, some hardworking North Carolina fishing families were sick of Mother Nature’s mood swings. After a series of hurricanes slammed the Grand Banks, they found a new port of harbor. A little town called Hunter’s Point on the west coast of Florida.

The new site was sheltered by barrier islands — but not bottled up. Nearby passes offered access to north Sarasota Bay, Tampa Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. And more fish than anyone could count. The world was hungry. The seafaring settlers were happy to meet the need.

The fishermen got back to work. They barely noticed when the U.S. Post Office arrived in 1896. After consulting with bigwigs, they gave the settlement an official name: Cortez. Once the fishermen noticed, a few were less than pleased. Some of their descendants still are, including historian, author and activist Mary Fulford Green, a granddaughter of the first residents of the village. She’s also the co-author of “Cortez: Then and Now.”

“We should never have chosen that name,” Green says. “Cortez was an evil man, and that’s not who we are.”

But most of the fishermen shrugged it off. New name, same attitude. The sons and grandsons of the original settlers kept fishing. Life was good. Except when it wasn’t.

Albion Inn, a hotel and store, was the only building in Cortez besides the museum that survived the hurricane of 1921. The unnamed Category 3 storm ravaged the coast with 100 mph winds.

The barrier islands didn’t stop the hurricane of 1921. Its 100-mph winds trashed the village. But the fishermen weren’t going anywhere. Neither were the fish. Why should they?

They rebuilt and resumed fishing — even in hard times. Why?

“You can call us stubborn or crazy,” laughs Karen Bell, a third-generation Cortez native and the owner of Star Fish Restaurant and the A.P. Bell Fish Co. “Maybe a little of both.”

That true grit paid off.

During the Great Depression, Cortez was one of the few American communities that scorned federal aid. Its fishermen still went out to sea, even when Florida farmers couldn’t pay for their catch. No money? No problem. They traded fish for fresh produce — and nobody starved.

That way of life endured. Tropical depressions and economic depressions didn’t stop them. Politics almost did. In 1994, Florida voters approved a gill net ban, and it became law in 1995. The hard work of commercial fishing just got a lot harder.

“The net ban is a bad law based on a lie,” Green recalls. “The amendment supporters accused us of making a ‘mullet stink.’ They called us ‘the vacuum cleaners of the sea.’ There wasn’t one word of truth in it. We could never have caught all the fish in the water. But Florida voters bought the lie, and our fishermen had to adapt.”

You won’t see high-rise buildings in Cortez Village. Instead, simple waterfront homes, cottages and vintage mobile home parks dot the shoreline.

They did just that. Most of them, anyway.

Cortez’s die-hard fishermen went farther out in the Gulf and worked longer hours. But some hung up their nets for good. Others turned to drug running. Today, those outlaws are long gone. The village’s law-abiding fishing families remain. If you know Cortez, you’ll know their names.

The Guthries, the Bells, the Taylors and the Fulfords — to name a few.

Tough people. When life knocks them down, they get back up. They’ve bounced back from a long list of threats, including red tide, depressions (both tropical and economic) and the net ban. But the greatest threat isn’t going away.

The iron law of supply and demand.

The Cortezians love their village. The land it sits on is valuable. And why shouldn’t it be? As Florida locations go, it’s the finest kind. Only a mile from the sugar white sands along the Gulf of Mexico! A view to die for!

Interests with deep pockets would love that land, and they’re willing to pay for it.

If these villagers hadn’t put up a fight, their laid-back village could look like every other waterfront location in Florida. But fight they did. Over the years, they’ve fended off development of high-rise condos, upscale rezoning, deep-water marinas, creeping gentrification and various proposals for a fixed-span bridge. They’re fighting their latest bridge battle now.

Why does Cortez keep fighting when other Florida villages tapped out? To Bell, the answer is simple: because it’s a real community, not an artificial construct. Because Cortez has something to fight for.

Karen Bell, a third-generation Cortez native and the owner of A.P. Bell Fish Co., which operates 13 fishing boats. A.P. Bell ships seafood internationally and supplies it to several local restaurants.

“What we have here is more than buildings,” Bell says. “Cortez is a real fishing village. Our families might feud occasionally. But we have each other, and that’s why we’re still here. We’re here to stay — even if we have to fight.”

What will Cortez village look like 25 years in the future? Without a time machine, we can’t answer. We can report it’s still a great place to be.


The News from Cortez

Cortez’s fishing industry still thrives. A.P. Bell Fish Co. is still going strong, and the fishing boats aren’t props. But most of today’s fishermen are either commuters or renters. Out on the bay, the scores of picturesque stilt houses are down to three. On land, the cracker cottages get neater and prettier every year. Cortez’s core families still own most of the cottages. Most families don’t make a living from the sea, either. Hungry, sleepy tourists are the new catch of the day.

According to Bell, that’s life. And life is change. Adapting to change is the secret. This village of survivors is good at many things. That’s one of them.

Cortezians might cherish the past, but they don’t live in it.

“We’re resilient, and we go with the flow,” Bell says. “Hey, if we survived the net ban, we can deal with anything. A lot of people are up in arms, but I’m not worried about the bridge; I’m not worried about gentrification. Whatever happens, we’ll think of something.”


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