For thousands of years, indigenous peoples populated the land that would become Manatee County. With only spoken word and no written texts, we do not know what these peoples were named or exactly where they lived. The only records they left behind are the middens consisting of shells and artifacts. One thing we do know was that oral traditions were important to these peoples as they shared skills and crafts through stories and teaching handed down from generation to generation. When these indigenous people died or were driven from their land, the methods that they used to fish, make clothing, hunt, grow crops, and preserve food were lost.
As new settlers arrived they had to learn to adapt the skills that they learned in their former homes for life in the Sunshine State. Women learned to wear cotton instead of wool, men learned to grow crops in the “tomato sand” along the river, and families travelled by wooden boats instead of horse and wagon. Some of their new knowledge came from trial and error. Other information was gleaned from the settlers who came before them.
Families also played a large part in transferring skills to the next generation. In the community that became known as Cortez for example, five fishermen from North Carolina’s Carteret County—Charlie Jones, Jim Guthries, William Fulford, Nathan Fulford and Sanders Fulford (three brothers)—are given credit for creating Cortez in the 1880s. Along with them came their wives, children and parents. They chose Hunter’s Point, later named Cortez, for its small safe harbor and plentiful fish, especially mullet. From generation to generation, the men and women of Cortez taught the crafts of quilt making, canning, fishing, net mending and other skills necessary to survive. They lived off the land and sea and so did their children and their children’s children.
Today, many people are displaced from the land. We live in houses powered by electricity, cooking prepared foods bought at the grocery store and wearing clothing purchased at the mall. We no longer know the chain of events it takes to create food, lodging, clothing or furnishing. Like the indigenous peoples of thousands of years ago, a whole way of life and culture is being lost.
The folk skills and heritage crafts of Cortez Fishing Village, and early communities throughout Florida, are at risk of extinction. As geographic distance between families continues to grow, new ways of passing on information need to emerge. Younger generations and retirees alike benefit from building social unity through shared experiences and connections to the past.
In response, the Florida Maritime Museum is opening a Folk School. These “schools for life” focus on providing a supportive environment where anyone, of any class, can come to learn skills that provide a sense of pride and dignity not only in themselves but in their national culture. There are about 40 folk schools currently in the U.S., and the Folk School at Florida Maritime Museum would be only one of two in Florida. This project also provides a sustainable revenue stream to further support the museum’s mission and be a significant resource to our community.
Not only are we preserving lost skills. By creating a place where anyone in the community can come, visitors or residents, to learn new skills or perhaps refresh on old ones will bring back those moments with the people we love. Those memories or experiences where maybe we watched our mothers canning as a child but never paid close enough attention to learn. Maybe our fathers were fishermen, carpenters or farmers but in a fast changing society there just wasn’t time or the necessity to learn these traditional skills that formed early communities in Florida and throughout the world.
Photo Credit: The children of S. Fulford pose with an oxcart in their yard on the Cortez waterfront. From left to right are Katherine, Helen, and unidentified boy and John. PHOTOGRAPH COURTESY OF THE MANATEE COUNTY LIBRARY SYSTEM
Author: Cathy Slusser