Cortez School House celebrates 100 years

kbergen@bradenton.comNovember 10, 2012 

CORTEZ -- For more than 40 years, the building was a schoolhouse, built by the county in 1912 for the children of the Cortez fishing village. Later, when the 1921 hurricane ravaged the coastal community, the townsfolk sought refuge in the building with its brick walls and elevated hard-pine floors.

The brick schoolhouse with the white columns on 119th Street West has played other roles in Cortez. It was once an artist's home and studio. Now it is home to the Florida Maritime Museum. But still, always, it's been a gathering place.

"It's the heart of the village, the community center," said Karen Riley-Love, the supervisor of the Florida Maritime Museum, which has operated out of the building since 2006.

From 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, the Cortez community will celebrate the Cortez School House Centennial.

Former students and teachers will receive commemorative pins at the free event, which features live music, a Cortez Village Historical Society booth, an ice cream-eating contest and "Reading, Writing and 'Rithmatic" sta

tions for kids.

For those that attended the elementary school, which taught Cortez students up to sixth grade until 1961, the event will be all about memories.

Former Bradenton mayor Bill Evers attended the school in the early 1940s after his family moved to Cortez from Providence, R.I.

He remembers wearing knickers and a tie to the first day of school, much to the amusement of some shoeless classmates in khakis.

"I was a Yankee transplant," Evers said. "I changed the next day."

Football is what Richard Culbreath remembers the most about the Cortez school. Boys would play on the north lawn with no helmets or pads, which made it difficult when Culbreath went on to play at different schools.

"I never did fit in with the football program very well," Culbreath said. "I guess wearing shoes just slowed me down."

But the schoolhouse wasn't just for the kids. The whole village gathered there for dances and assemblies. Culbreath's father and uncles played in a string band that earned itself the name "Cortez Grand Ole Opry" and often played Sundays.

President of the Cortez Village Historical Society, Sam Bell, says standing inside the familiar building is a walk down memory lane. The Cortez native, who now lives in the home he grew up in, entered the school at age 5 and graduated in sixth grade, moving on to Bradenton Junior High School. He remembers about 60 kids attending the 1-3 and 4-6 classrooms, separated by an auditorium with a stage. That meant everybody knew everybody's business.

"If you got a spanking at school, you'd get another one at home because your parents already knew about it," he said.

But Bell has plenty of fine memories of the school, like when his first-grade teacher May McCloud would squeeze her six first-grade students into her 1935 Chevy Coupe with a rumble seat and drive her students over the wooden bridge to the drugstore for ice cream cones. The same teacher would give Bell and his classmates gifts when they graduated from Manatee County High School in 1957. Bell still has the gold cufflinks with his initials inscribed.

When the county decided to bus students to Palma Sola Elementary in 1961 and the school closed, a weaver from Michigan bought the schoolhouse, turning it into his residence and studio.

But Robert Sailors understood the importance of the property to Cortez. He hosted the annual Cortez Native Picnic on his lawn and other times invited entertainment, such as the Sarasota Ballet Troupe, to perform for the community at his home. Bell still remembers what people would chant before the picnics: "Bring a chair and a dish to share ... and bring some shade because it's hot out there!"

Sailor died in 1995. Manatee County would eventually purchase the schoolhouse, renovate the property and building with help from the Florida Communities Trust and create the adjoining Cortez Nature Preserve. The Cortez School House became the Florida Maritime Museum in 2006, but Saturday the celebration will focus on its history as a schoolhouse.

It's not really about the building though, alumni say, but the people who passed through it.

"The big thing is the spirit of the people. The friendliness of them," Evers said. "They are down-to-earth people. There's nothing put-on about them. No phonies."

Katy Bergen, Herald education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.

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