By Halee Turner
The first schoolhouse in Cortez was built in the mid 1890’s, after the lumber had been hauled in ox carts from Palma Sola. When finished, the one-room building with board and batten siding stood on a plot of land owned by a local man, Millard Brown, whose mother-in-law was recruited as the school’s first teacher. It was here, under her care, that the children of Cortez’s first settlers began their education.
Yet, as you often see in small communities like Cortez, the little schoolhouse served more than just this one purpose. For years, it also functioned as a community center and house of worship, at least until the area's first church was constructed.
Although this original school building still stands proudly in Cortez, many might more easily recognize what is actually the second schoolhouse to be built in the historic fishing village.
In 1912, a three-room brick schoolhouse, one of six built by the Manatee County School Board that year, found its home at the entrance to Cortez. This building replaced the little wooden schoolhouse not only as a place of learning, but also as a community resource. Like it's predecessor, it too was often used as a community center and meeting place. It hosted movie nights with five cent admission, political rallies that used the front porch as a speaking podium, holiday festivals and more. It even provided shelter in times of trouble, like when a hurricane laid siege to the Cortez waterfront in 1921.
Through the years, this building has witnessed quiet moments and long forgotten memories. If the walls could talk, we can only imagine the stories of love, loss, or laughter hey could tell. One such story might be that of J. Hartley Blackburn and the woman he would spend his life with.
Blackburn, the son of a Methodist preacher, was born in Madison, Florida. He graduated high school in Miami, received his bachelors at Florida Southern College. Ultimately, he earned a master’s in Education from Duke University and received years of additional training in his pursuit of higher education.
In 1932, he found his way to the Cortez schoolhouse. Here he started his career as a teaching principal. Each day, he worked and taught alongside fellow faculty member, Betty Phelps. They fell in love and, within two years, they were married.
The pair continued to play an active role in the education of Manatee County’s youth. Mrs. Blackburn taught in Manatee County for another 17 years, which included a term during wartime as the football coach for Manatee County Junior High. Mr. Blackburn became principal of Manatee County Elementary and Junior High School, before being elected the school superintendent of Manatee County. He was re-elected five times before his eventual retirement in 1968, when the position became appointive rather than elective.
Over the course of his career as superintendent, the number of students enrolled in the Manatee County School system had nearly quadrupled. He had attended seminars for administrators in Washington D.C. and at Harvard, acted as chairman of the National superintendents’ conference, and was recognized as the first Florida superintendent to receive a distinguished service award from the American Association of School Administrators.
Through all the years his passion for education never wavered, and neither did his commitment to his wife.