Wonder what life was like in Manatee way back when? Online oral histories tell the tales

Closing your eyes, can you imagine the sounds of horse-drawn wagons bumping along shell roads? How about the voices of fishermen singing as they mend their nets or a boat builder’s hammer clanging against metal nails and wood?


All sounds from times long gone, but not completely forgotten in Manatee County. An area proud of its deep heritage, Manatee County not only works hard to preserve its physical past, but also to keep its history alive through the continued practice of sharing folktales, stories and song.


Sharing the past as well as art and ideas by word of mouth from one generation to the next is an ancient human tradition found in all corners of the world.


Collecting oral traditions in Florida began with efforts of pioneer folklorists –– like Stetson Kennedy and Zora Neale Hurston –– during the first half of the 20th century.


Men play music on the docks in Cortez. Florida Maritime Museum


Kennedy and Hurston joined the Federal Writers’ Project, a federally funded Works Progress Administration (WPA) initiative created under the New Deal, along with about 200 other collaborators in the 1930s to document the diversity of Florida culture for the Library of Congress.


Through the WPA, Kennedy and Hurston visited countless rural corners, small towns and crossroads in Florida. They recorded the diverse sounds, voices, dialects and languages found in every county of our colorful state.


Thanks to their fieldwork in the 1930s, the past can speak to us today in recordings available online via Florida Memory floridamemory.com –– the State Library and Archives of Florida’s digital outreach program –– and the Library of Congress.


Why are oral histories and traditions so important? They are our past, they are our future, and they are the threads that tie it all together in our present. For we all have a story to tell, and our stories are what make our communities so unique.


Cortez is one community in Manatee County with many voices — voices eager and proud to share their maritime knowledge, fish tales and local history.

Between 2012 and 2014, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) recorded some of these voices with the help of 11th- and 12th-grade Florida history students from Manatee County School for the Arts.


As part of a larger oral history project, Voices from the Fisheries, these recordings focused on the lives of fishermen, fishing family members, and fishing industry members in the community. The stories told by oral history participants –– such as Karen Bell and John McDonald –– paint rich scenes of life in Cortez, past and present.

By simply sharing their stories, they provide powerful resources for future researchers and the public interested in the local, human experience on the Gulf of Mexico.

The Cortesians can be heard online via NOAA National Marine Fisheries Service (st.nmfs.noaa.gov) along with other oral history interviews related to commercial, recreational and subsistence fishing in the United States and its territories.


Today, history continues to live and grow in the streets of Cortez as well as in the walls of the Florida Maritime Museum located at 4415 119th St. W. in Cortez –– where you can experience Manatee County’s wealth of maritime history through unique objects, local stories and educational programs.


If you would like to take your love for traditional skills and oral histories to the next level, the Florida Maritime Museums’ Folk School teaches a variety of traditional skills classes, including our upcoming Southwest Florida Cultural Conference on Saturday. The conference includes an oral history workshop, a Seminole Canoe Making demonstration and lunch from the Swordfish Grill and Tiki Bar. Space is limited, so register at FloridaFolkSchool.org by 4 p.m. on Thursday.


For more information on the Florida Maritime Museum or Folk School at Florida Maritime Museum visit floridamaritimemuseum.org or call 941-708-6120. The Museum is open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday.

Casey Wooster, curator of the Florida Maritime Museum, grew up in Florida and treasures the unique history of our great state. Contact her at Casey.Wooster@manateeclerk.com, 941-708-6120.

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Florida Maritime Museum, ​​Historical Resources Department for the Office of Ms. Angelina Colonneso, 
Manatee County Clerk of Circuit Court and Comptroller