The Mullet Fishermen of Punta Gorda

 

This is wonderful time of year: the striped (or jumping) mullet are running and they're my favorite fish in the world. I've just finished salting and sun drying my roe, too-- bottarga, here I come! Photo by David Cecelski

This is wonderful time of year: the jumping mullet are running and they’re my favorite fish in the world. I’ve just finished salting and sun drying my roe, too– bottarga, here I come! Photo by David Cecelski

A couple weeks ago, I wrote about a migration of mullet fishermen from Carteret County, North Carolina, to a remote corner of Southwest Florida in the 1880s. That group of migrants established a fishing village called Cortez, 40 miles below Tampa. Today I want to look at another chapter in the story of Carteret County’s fishermen in Florida, this time involving a town 50 miles south of Cortez. 

The first fisherman from Carteret County, N.C., that I found in Punta Gorda, Florida, was a man named John C. Lewis. He was born in Beaufort, the seat of Carteret County, in 1847 and he was the son of Anson and Irene Lewis.

According to Gardner Cutler’s History of Florida, Past and Present, Historical and Biographical, Anson and Irene Lewis made their living as a “manufacturer of supplies for sailing vessels.”

The Lewises struggled after the Civil War.  From a young age, John C. Lewis was left on his own to make his way in life.

Around 1880 Lewis left Beaufort and went to Florida. At that time, the southwest coast of Florida seemed like a brave new frontier. It was a world of remote fish camps and scattered hamlets and resembled the Caribbean more than it did the rest of the U.S.

But there were a lot of fish. Cuban fishermen had been catching and salting striped mullet on those shores since at least the late 1600s. Even when Lewis showed up, he found mullet fishing camps scattered among the keys and inlets where most of the fishermen hailed from Cuba and the Bahamas.

He first set to mullet fishing out of the Cedar Keys, then Palma Sola and finally went south and ventured to Punta Gorda in or about 1886. At that time, Punta Gorda was just a small village located on the south side of the Peace River where the river opens into Charlotte Harbor.

Manatee County, Florida, 1874. This is one of the earliest maps to show Punta Gorda. From Columbus Drew, LC Railroad Maps (Jacksonville, Fl.: Columbus Drew, 1874). Courtesy, Library of Congress

Manatee County, Florida, 1874. This is one of the earliest maps to show Punta Gorda. From Columbus Drew, LC Railroad Maps (Jacksonville, Fl.: Columbus Drew, 1874). Courtesy, Library of Congress

Punta Gorda was on the verge of boom times though. Large phosphate deposits had just been discovered a little ways up the Peace River. The Florida Southern Railway had also recently extended its line to Punta Gorda, even building a 400-foot wharf near the village’s harbor so that its trains could unload passengers and freight directly onto steamships bound for Havana.

With the railroad also came the village’s first ice plants. For the first time, local fishermen could switch away from shipping salted mullet and turn to a more lucrative trade in fresh mullet.

Punta Gorda Ice and Fertilizer Plant, Punta Gorda, Fl., undated. Courtesy, Punta Gorda History Center

Punta Gorda Ice and Fertilizer Plant, Punta Gorda, Fl., undated. Courtesy, Punta Gorda History Center

In partnership with a man named Lorenzo T. Blocksom, Lewis established a fish company in Punta Gorda, harvesting fish (largely mullet) and shipping them on ice on the new railroad.

Blacksom also called Carteret County, North Carolina, home. He came to Florida from a fishing village called Smyrna, which was 8 miles east of where Lewis grew up in Beaufort, N.C. According to the federal census, Blocksom’s father was a mariner, probably not from Carteret County, while his mother, Mary A. Willis, was from Smyrna.

Blocksom’s wife Bodacia, by the way, was also a Willlis from Smyrna, presumably one of his mother’s cousins.

An old story says that Lorenzo Blocksom and Earl Lewis actually arrived in Punta Gorda together aboard a 15-ton schooner during the great Florida yellow fever epidemic of 1886-87.

According to that story (which I have not been able to verify), Lewis, Blocksom and two other men had been shipping mullet out of Tampa, but the yellow fever epidemic had hit the town hard and a strict quarantine had shut down their shipping business.

To circumvent the quarantine in Tampa, they recruited mullet fishermen from the North Carolina coast and relocated to Punta Gorda. The yellow fever epidemic had not reached Punta Gorda and they discovered that they could bully their way past the harbor patrols that were supposed to keep out people from towns where yellow fever was prevalent.

In that story, one of the other men on that 15-ton schooner, William H. Johnson, also came from North Carolina. I don’t know exactly where they came from, but he and his brother, Iredell W. Johnson, were already skilled ship pilots before they arrived in Florida.

L. T. Blocksom and W. H. Johnson, Punta Gorda, Fl., ca. 1890. One was a fisherman, one a harbor pilot. Both were from North Carolina. Courtesy, Punta Gorda History Center

L. T. Blocksom and W. H. Johnson, Punta Gorda, Fl., ca. 1890. One was a fisherman, one a harbor pilot. Both were from North Carolina. Courtesy, Punta Gorda History Center

In the late 1880s, the Johnson brothers became some of Charlotte Harbor’s first pilots. They largely piloted vessels that carried phosphate ore from those newly discovered mines up the Peace River.

Phosphate mining on the Peace River, just upriver of Punta Gorda, ca. 1900. Courtesy, Punta Gorda History Center

Phosphate mining on the Peace River, just upriver of Punta Gorda, ca. 1900. Courtesy, Punta Gorda History Center

Iredell Johnson served as chief pilot at Charlotte Harbor from 1889 to 1933. He and William and their sons and grandsons would pilot on the harbor for most of the 20th century.

After a few years, Earl Lewis and Lorenzo Blocksom ended their fishing partnership. At that time, Blocksom started his own fish company, eventually managing as many as 15 boats.

After he and Blocksom went their own ways, Lewis entered a new partnership in Punta Gorda with other fishermen from Carteret County. This time it was the Chadwick brothers, Steve, Clay and Hubbard. They were all from a farming and fishing community called Straits, 4 miles east of Beaufort.

My friend Dennis Chadwick lives in the Straits today and is descended from that branch of the Chadwicks. According to family stories, he told me, Charles D. Chadwick, the father of the three brothers, had been making trips to the mullet fishing grounds in Southwest Florida for some time before his sons made their first trip to Punta Gorda.

Dennis Chadwick showing me to Charles D. Chadwick's grave at a family cemetery in Beaufort, N.C. Photo by David Cecelski

My friend Dennis Chadwick showing me Charles D. Chadwick’s grave at a family cemetery in Beaufort, N.C. A former state ferry captain and coast guardsman, Dennis is an talented local historian and genealogist. He was the one who first told me about the historical ties between Carteret County and Punta Gorda. Photo by David Cecelski

If that is true, Charles Chadwick and other Carteret County fishermen may have started going down to that part of Florida for the mullet fishing season in the 1870s or even earlier.

According to Josephines Cortes, who for years was Punta Gorda’s leading historian, Steve Chadwick was the first of Charles Chadwick’s sons to discover Punta Gorda for himself.

In 1896, he was apparently mullet fishing out of Cortez, a fishing village 50 miles north of Punta Gorda on Saratoga Bay. Fishermen largely from Carteret County established that village a decade earlier. (You can find my story on Cortez here.)

While he was fishing out of Cortez, Steve Chadwick and a first mate set sail for Gasparilla Island, which is more than 50 miles to the south of Cortez. I do not know why they were headed for that remote barrier island, but I assume it had something to do with the fishing business because there was not much else at Gaspirilla Island at that time.

G. M. Cole House, built 1909, Gaspirilla Island, Fl. A barrier island on the edge of Charlotte Harbor, Gaspirilla Island is crowded with resort hotels and condos today. When Steve Chadwick visited in the 1890s though, the island's residents were mainly fishermen and their families. Most lived in cabins built on stilts so they would not wash away in storms. Courtesy, Punta Gorda History Center

G. M. Cole House, built 1909, Gaspirilla Island, Fl. A barrier island on the edge of Charlotte Harbor, Gaspirilla Island is crowded with resort hotels and condos today. When Steve Chadwick headed there in the 1890s though, the island’s residents were mainly fishermen and their families. Most lived in cabins built on stilts so they would not wash away in storms. Courtesy, Punta Gorda History Center

According to the story, Chadwick and his first mate had only made it halfway to Gasparilla Island when a fierce storm forced them to take shelter at Casey Pass (where Venice, Florida, is today).

They apparently lost their provisions in the storm because they had to subsist on raw conchs, at least so Steve Chadwick used to say, until the storm blew over four days later.

(Chadwick apparently never ate a conch the rest of his life, which I find kind of amazing considering how much Dennis and the other Chadwicks I know at the Straits today love their conch chowder!)

When the storm died out, Chadwick and his first mate set sail again, but 10 or 15 miles down the coast they made a detour into Palm Ridge (which is now called Manasota Key) to get provisions at a little trading post run by a man from Michigan named Charles T. Johnson.

(He wasn’t related to the two ship pilots I mentioned earlier, or at least I do not think so.)

Punta Gorda in the great hurricane hurricane of 1921. Courtesy, Punta Gorda History Center

Punta Gorda in the great hurricane hurricane of 1921. Courtesy, Punta Gorda History Center

The trading post was next to a mullet fishing camp run by a fellow named Charlie Dishong.

Chadwick apparently liked what he saw. Schools of mullet ran so thick that they turned miles of water dark as they snaked through the keys and inlets of Lemon Bay. Two years later, he returned, bought Dishong’s mullet camp and married Charles T. Johnson’s daughter.

Steve Chadwick and his new wife would stay at Palm Ridge, build a home and grow rich in the mullet fishing business. (Well sort of: they used their profits in the fish business to get into real estate and banking, made a fortune, then lost it all in the collapse of the Florida real estate bubble in the 1920s.)

The brothers had also established a fish company in Punta Gorda, 18 miles east of Palm Ridge. Apparently Clay and Hubbard ran that end of things.

(They had started out in partnership with John C. Lewis, but after a few years Lewis and the Chadwicks went their own ways.)

By that time, the mullet fishing business in Punta Gorda was booming. There were at most a handful of fish companies there and families from Carteret County, N.C., were the principal owners of three of them—those owned by the Chadwicks, Lorenzo Blocksom and John C. Lewis.

By 1900, the Chadwick brothers were employing 100 full-time and 30 part-time fishermen and packers. Many of their employees were young men who had come from Carteret County just for the mullet fishing season.

Most of those young men lived either on houseboats or at ice houses that were built on stilts throughout Charlotte Harbor, Pine Island Sound and Bull Bay. Others presumably bunked at Steve Chadwick’s mullet camp at Lemon Bay.

Fish cabin, White Rock Shoals. This is one of the last of Southwest Florida's old fish cabins. Built sometime before 1930 by the Punta Gorda Fish Co., the cabin is located on the south end of Pine Island Sound. Photo courtesy, Bureau of Historic Preservation, Florida Department of State

Fish cabin, White Rock Shoals. This is one of the last of Southwest Florida’s old fish cabins. Built sometime before 1930 by the Punta Gorda Fish Co., the cabin is located on the south end of Pine Island Sound. Photo courtesy, Bureau of Historic Preservation, Florida Department of State

Every couple days the Chadwick brothers’ runboats re-supplied those isolated outposts with ice and picked up their catches. Back in Punta Gorda, they loaded the fish onto railroad boxcars with special shelving that allowed them to pack one shelf with fish, the next with ice, the next with fish and so on.

I don’t know how many of those Carteret County fishermen ended up staying in Florida. However, the 1900 census for Desoto County, Florida, where Punta Gorda was at that time (now it’s part of Charlotte County), lists fishermen with some mighty familiar surnames if you are from Carteret County.

The names in the census include Midgetts, Gillikins, Guthries, Willises, Fulfords, Lawrences and Whiteheads, as well as other Chadwicks.

Judging by those surnames, I would guess that most of those fishermen came from the Carteret County communities of Straits, Otway and maybe Harkers Island, which are all located within a few miles of one another on the far side of the North River, just east of Beaufort.

Capt. Charlie W. Willis, Cape Lookout, N.C., ca. 1920. Born on the Cape Banks, in Carteret County, in 1866, he was Teddy Roosevelt's chief guide on a manta ray hunting expedition in Punta Gorda in 1917. He and his crew made their homes on the NC coast throughout their lives, but they often spent winters mullet fishing in Punta Gorda. Photo courtesy of Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va. You can find my story on Roosevelt's manta ray hunting expedition in Punta Gorda here.

Capt. Charlie W. Willis, Cape Lookout, N.C., ca. 1920. Capt. Willis and his crew lived in Carteret County, but they often spent the fall and early winter mullet fishing in Punta Gorda when they were young. In 1917, they were Teddy Roosevelt’s guides on a manta ray hunting expedition to Punta Gorda. Photo courtesy, Walter Coles, Sr., Coles Hill, Va. You can find my 2-part story on Roosevelt’s manta ray hunting expedition in Punta Gorda here and here.

But I also found records of fishermen in Punta Gorda that came from fishing communities in other parts of Carteret County, including the Ca’e Banks, the Promise Land and Salter Path.

I know that many of the Carteret County fishermen in Punta Gorda eventually came back home. Others stayed.

Yet others kept going back and forth between the mullet fishing grounds of Florida and North Carolina, year in and year out, decade after decade, living as if they would always have one part of their heart here on the Atlantic and the other in the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

4 thoughts on “The Mullet Fishermen of Punta Gorda

  1. My Great great Uncle started the Star Fish Co. In Cortez, Allen (Judge) Garner. Several of my Great uncles worked for him. Many happy memories of great seafood supplied by the fishermen of South West Florida!

    Liked by 1 person

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