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Sunday Favorites: Net Spreads and Stilt Houses

CORTEZ - This week a judge ruled that a famous stilt of the coast of A.P. Bell Fish Company in Sarasota Bay, must be removed. While many people might be familiar with shack over the water, they might not know the history behind it.
For more than a century, the people of Cortez have made a living harvesting seafood from Sarasota Bay. In the 1880s, the area was settled by five fisherman from Carteret County North Carolina – Charlie Jones, Jim Guthrie and three brothers, Billy, Nate and Sanford Fulford.
Back then, Cortez was known as Hunter’s Point, according to Dr. Mary Fulford Green in a 1987 address to the Manatee Historical Society.
The men had a vision, one where they would live off the sea and sell their catch at market. When their plan worked, a slew of relatives, all from Carteret County, followed them down to the Manatee County section hoping for a better life. They took the train to Tampa, then chartered a ship the rest of the way down.
The original crew] built two-story clapboard houses along the bay. The homes were big enough to house the many children born to the families, and serve as temporary accommodations for the many relatives arriving from North Carolina, according to Mary Fulford.
At the time, there was no way for the folks of Cortez to get to any nearby villages, like Braidentown (present-day Bradenton) except by boat. The thick underbrush of saw palmetto that populated the area was almost impenetrable and made it difficult to clear roads for any distance. However, large sailboats arrived several times a week from Cedar Key and Tampa. They delivered supplies and collected loads of fish, mostly mullet, for the northern markets.
The life of the fisherman was not an easy one. The men used ”skipjacks,“ or small sailing vessels. Back then, nets were made of cotton and had to be dried. Fishing during the prime seasons required long hours. The men built stilt houses off the coast where they could dock their boats, get a few hours of sleep, and dry their nets on apparatuses called Ă”net spreads’ so they could be ready to go as soon as the sun came up. Back then, mullet only brought in about one cent per pound. When the fishing trip was over, nets were soaked in a lime solution to prevent rot, then hung out to dry, according to the speech.
The roaring 1920s brought many changes to the little village. Automobiles were gaining popularity and for the first time, shipments of seafood were transported by road. Electricity was a welcomed addition to the homes. Prior to that, all cooking was done on wood stoves and clothes were washed in large cauldrons above an open fire.
When the depression hit, Cortez was unaffected. The villagers were the only people in the country still eating scallops and fish daily. That’s likely the reason they were the only community in the entire country that did not receive a dollar of federal aid, according to Robert Ripley, of Ripley’s Believe it or Not Museum.
Since the 1950s, the face of change has moved much more quickly for Cortez. At one time, anti-net legislation was the biggest threat to the fishing village, today its development. Throughout the years, Cortez has manage to maintain its quaintness and historic livelihood. My hope is it will continue to stay strong and prosper in this modern world.


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