Exploring Cortez, Fla., a real old-time fishing village

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This old fishing village on Sarasota Bay could easily be confused with an outdoor living museum, like Old Sturbridge Village in Massachusetts.

Except for one thing. Cortez is no museum.

The fish houses that date to the original founding families of this village still sell fresh grouper and shrimp to area restaurants. The N.E. Taylor Boatworks is a working boatyard that traces its lineage to 1928. And those original village settlers have offspring living in the modest 1920s bungalows that pack the narrow roads in the 2-square-mile settlement.

Stroll around this time machine of a fishing village of 500 families or so and you will see familiar surnames — the Bells and the Taylors, the Guthries and the Fulfords, the Greens and the Moras. In the 1880s, these families came from the southern edge of the Outer Banks in North Carolina to escape the Atlantic hurricanes and settled in the area known at the time as Hunter's Point.

This Intracoastal fishing spot was ideal, buffered by the barrier islands with deep water access and the Manatee River bringing in fresh water, said Roger Allen, Cortez Historic Sites manager at the Florida Maritime Museum at Cortez.

"What's unique is that all those families still have representatives here in the fishing business," said Allen, a 30-year veteran of the history museum business.

Cortez is right off Cortez Road — State Road 684 outside Bradenton — and tucked away from the shopping centers, chain restaurants and sprawling apartments only a few miles away. Its vibrancy after all these years is linked to the fierce historic pride of the old fishing families and the three-way partnership between Manatee County, the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage (FISH) and the Cortez Village Historical Society.

"When you talk about Cortez, people have done a remarkable job at preserving Old Florida," Allen said. Ironically, Allen worked at a maritime museum at the Outer Banks' southern end in North Carolina — the location where Cortez's settlers came from.

"People are passionate about being a Cortezian," he said. "They'll tell you what generation they're from. A kid will tell you he's a fourth-generation Cortezian."

One of the colorful draws of Cortez is the Star Fish Company & Restaurant, where on a cool Friday evening in December, customers are munching on grouper sandwiches and watching a western sky turn coral pink. At an outdoor bar, several couples are washing down their fish sandwiches with beer.

"We love watching the pelicans and the birds," said Adriana Crampton, who just finished her sandwich with her husband, Jim. "It's old-time Cortez atmosphere."

The village's biggest event of the year is its annual Cortez Commercial Fishing Festival, which draws about 15,000 visitors for the two-day event, Allen said. This year's festival is Feb. 21-22.

Thanks to selling enough $2 admissions, beer, art and seafood over the years, the Florida Institute for Saltwater Heritage bought 90 acres adjacent to the maritime museum for about $390,000 in 2005, Allen said.

That land is being used for a nature preserve, and since then, another 10 acres were bought, including a former crack house that's being fixed to house a fish boat restoration program.

The program is being held at the former Cortez firehouse, where power tools and retired festival T-shirts share space with the aged fish boats that are cycled through the building as they get repaired and preserved.

The nature preserve includes land that was cleared of exotic species such as Brazilian peppers. There are also plans for an upland tree area to include retention ponds for freshwater habitat that would be surrounded by coastal hemlocks, Allen said.

Karen Bell, owner of the Star Fish Company & Restaurant and an instrumental player in pulling the nature preserve land deal together, said the preserve will serve as "buffer between development and here. ... It's something we're really proud of."

Bell's wholesale business sells grouper, mullet, stone crab, shrimp and pompano, and restaurants such as Bonefish Grill are buyers of fish harvested by the Cortez boats. In fact, Bonefish Grill donated money for materials and pilings to build a small bridge on the nature preserve property.

Bell, who traces her heritage to two families that settled Cortez, said it's the resilient people of the fishing community who have pride in maintaining the old-time fishing village feel of the community.

Which is why Bell likes to tell the story of a developer who wanted to buy properties in Cortez to create a fishing village.

"I told him, 'We already have a fishing village here.'"

If you go

Cortez is about 30 minutes west of Interstate 75 in the Bradenton Beach/Anna Maria Island area, about an hour south of Tampa. Take I-75 north to the Manatee Avenue/State Road 64 exit. Take Manatee Avenue/SR 64 west and make a left turn at 75th Street West and go south about three miles and make a right on Cortez Road to 119th Street West. Turn left on 119th Street West and you're in Cortez village.

Where to stay

Holiday Inn Express, 4450 47th St. West, Bradenton; 941-795-4633

Pelican Post Motel, Anna Maria Island, Bradenton Beach; 941-778-2833

Where to eat

Star Fish Company, 12306 46th Ave. West, Cortez; 941-794-1243


Florida Maritime Museum at Cortez, 4415 119th St. West; 941-708-6120