A record crowd attended the 27th annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival on Feb. 21 and 22. Thousands of visitors took advantage of balmy weather and gathered in narrow streets lined with booths offering art and aromas of crab, shrimp and mullet.
Visitors swarmed into the tiny fishing village, gawking at the historically preserved neighborhood of 100-year-old homes. The throng gravitated to the small-town flavor of Cortez, enjoying the anachronism Cortezans struggle mightily to maintain in these modern times.
But it's more than the rustic homes, fishing houses and marinas that separate Cortez from all the other small towns in Florida. It's the people residing in Cracker homes and fishing the bay waters that are the character of Cortez.
"We all help one another," says Alcee Boogie Taylor, 85, a commercial fisherman who has lived in Cortez since 1925. Boogie got his nickname from being a dancing fool to boogie woogie music in juke joints. "The word, 'Cortez' is the most beautiful word in the world," says Boogie.
In World War II Boogie served with the the Seabees, building airstrips in the Pacific. His wife, Plum Taylor, acquired her nickname when Boogie and she were staying in Jacksonville on Plum Street. "Boogie gave me a new dress, and when I put it on, he said, 'Well, look it here, if it isn't Miss Plum.'" The name stuck, and her baptismal name was sealed and remains a state secret.
"Cortez is Paradise," raves Plum. "You couldn't ask for better neighbors, always caring for one another. It's wonderful; my grandchildren can play in the streets without fear."
Linda Molto is an organizer for the fish festival, and a community activist. "Cortez is a throwback to the past, something long gone from Florida," says Molto. "It's a rural enclave in the midst of an urban area - the last intact commercial fishing village in Florida."
Festival time is a hectic but celebratory period for Molto, acting as a hostess to artists camping out in her historic home. Throughout this creative chaos, Linda is able to slip into her studio to sign a serigraphic print, under the close supervision of her black and white kitten, Baracky.
Elista Gerace and Michelle Jeffs are Cortez post office clerks, who love visiting with customers, listening to their travails and achievements. "They all have a story to tell," says Elista. Her colleague Michelle agrees, saying, "Everybody is so friendly in Cortez. Everybody knows everybody."
Wyman Coarsey, is someone who knows everyone, dead and alive. As Cortez postmaster for 20 years, Wyman watched over the happenings in town. Lost your bike? See Wyman. Who's doing what to whom? Ask Wyman.
Cortezans are proud of the legend their village was the only town in America that did not take federal help in the Depression. Wyman attended school in Cortez, and when class was out, he and his brothers would row out to Palma Sola Bay and catch fish, oysters, turtles and blue crabs for dinner. "I had one pair of shoes, and if they were messed up I would go to school barefooted," said Wyman.
One of Wyman's hobbies is local archeology. But what he dearly loves is playing his harmonica. In fact Wyman often plays music with Richard Culbreath. "Richard was the first baby I ever saw," recalls Wyman with a smile.
Richard Culbreath has for 25 years thrilled fans at gigs performing country and folk music. Playing since he was 18, Culbreath dazzled the fishing festival crowd with his pick'n on his newly acquired Gretsch guitar.
Roger Allen, Cortez Village historic manager, is the man with the Midas touch. Finding riches beyond anyone's imagination, Allen has obtained thousands of dollars toward preserving the town's flavor. "Cortez is a community that has produced a grass-roots organization that speaks and does good works," said Allen.
Lou and Nancy Nassar, for 32 years have been the proprietors of The Cortez Market, the nexus of news. "Our store is not a 7-Eleven or Circle K. It's a community store," says Nancy. " We have known everyone for so long, it's almost family. People come in to discuss their problems. And if you need them, they're there."
Some people even call Lou "The Mayor" because of his listening and mediation skills. "I enjoy very much the community atmosphere, and the pride of the residents for what they do," says Lou. " We have such a family atmosphere in the village, where everyone looks out for everyone."
Artist Susan Curry says, "Cortez glows. No one is judged."
C.P. Pantas is one of the few female captains fishing in Cortez. Her boat "New Life" has had great success fishing in-shore for black sea bass.
Bob Pitt, wooden boat maker extraordinaire, leads an army of 20 volunteers crafting boats that are nationally prized for their art and durability. "Without the great help from volunteers we would not be able to put this festival on," says Pitt. "Volunteers are the backbone of our boat building. The guys are great."
James Wyre Lee sent festival gourmands into a tizzy over his Crab Shrimp Critter Fritters. Wyre exchanged greetings with many of his loyal customers from his seafood.
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