By Halee Turner
Florida Maritime Museum volunteer John McDonald grew up in Cortez, just across the street from the charming 1912 brick schoolhouse that now houses the Museum.
Even before he was old enough to attend classes, John spent some time at the school. Living just across the street made it easy to run over during recess and see his friends, but the principal was adamant that John shouldn’t be there during school hours until officially enrolled as a student. Time and time again John was sent back home.
Eventually young John McDonald deemed the situation altogether unfair and decided to take matters into his own hands. Armed with a rake and a determined attitude, he stood his ground and refused to leave. He even chased the principal around a little. John remembers starting school the next year “on pretty shaky ground,” but all was soon forgotten. He would attend school in Cortez through 6th grade, creating memories that have lasted a lifetime.
John, his classmates, and their teachers all faced challenges unique to life at the small schoolhouse in the fishing village of Cortez. Because of limited space, each of the three classrooms held several grades, requiring teachers to tailor their lessons to a broad age range. Students, therefore, had to work together and learn from each other as peers.
In a community like Cortez, there was also the possibility of some unexpected interruptions. One morning, school was disrupted by a runaway pig belonging to John and his family. A classmate, “Big Bubba”, was the first to alert the class, and soon the boys had set out to capture the fugitive. The rest of the class spectated from the windows, and order could not be restored until he was safely penned up.
Because of these challenges, classes in the Cortez Rural Graded Schoolhouse were at times a little informal, but they provided the children with the general education they needed. Though funny stories like these are perhaps the most memorable, John is careful to point out that his early education wasn’t always so chaotic.
When not in school, John could often be found out playing with friends. They played football and raced across the undeveloped land that surrounded Cortez. Like many in the village, John’s father fished, and when John wasn’t in school or at play, he could also be found climbing on net spreads or tagging along on his father’s boat. Out on the water, John learned about fishing and honest, hard work.
“There he jumped I hear him say. There he jumped again; I think we will catch some mullet today.” -John McDonald
He eventually left his hometown to join the Navy. His service took him across the world, but John eventually found himself back at the schoolhouse of his childhood. Nearly ten years ago, when he heard talk of a museum being put together in Cortez, John wanted to contribute. He initially came to offer a picture of his father’s boat, but quickly found himself enlisted by Roger Allen, the former museum manager. Describing the early years of the small museum, John says, “Somebody would come up with an idea, and we’d work on it.” He hunted down pictures and wrote labels, helping to preserve the almost forgotten past.
Thanks to the dedication and hard work of individuals like John, the Museum has a strong foundation and a bright future ahead of it. John still spends a part of his year at the schoolhouse supporting the Museum by contributing new ideas and guiding visitors through Florida’s rich maritime history by sharing his expansive knowledge and personal anecdotes.