Written by: Drew Sterwald
“We better move the boats,” Manny Norton told his grandson. “We’re gonna have quite a storm.”
Norton didn’t need The Weather Channel to tell him. He didn’t catch a forecast on the radio. He didn’t have to — he just knew.
Commercial fishermen like Norton lived months at a time in simple one-story wood-frame cabins set on pilings in Pine Island Sound and Charlotte Harbor. They had no electricity, no plumbing, no telephone. Rain gutters collected water they rationed.
Norton’s shack — where he fished for mullet and pompano by night and tended nets by day, where he waited for boats to bring food and where he ultimately died — still stands in Pine Island Sound more than 80 years after it was built.
The fish cabins — many of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places — are the legacy of a thriving industry that worked Charlotte Harbor waters before World War II. Fishermen netted fish by hand and stored their catch in the fish companies’ ice houses, where boats picked up the harvest and carried it to Punta Gorda.
As a result of spending so much of their lives on the water, fishermen like Norton could sense changes in weather, anticipate when fish congregated on the shoals and navigate with little reliance on technology.
“He was really in tune with the environment,” recalled Norton’s grandson, Charlie Bigelow of Fort Myers.
Bigelow can still recall, more than five decades later, the day his granddad told him a storm was coming and they had to move their boats. He was just a grade-school lad visiting Norton at his fish cabin in northern Pine Island Sound.
“We moved the boats to deeper water,” Bigelow remembered. “About the time we got the anchor set, the deluge started. The rain was so intense it sunk the skiff we had behind our boat.”
Up in smoke
The Norton cabin is part of a string of fishermen’s shacks and ice houses now used as crash pads by recreational anglers. These remnants of a local way of life almost didn’t make it this far.
The state of Florida started burning them down in the mid-1980s. The Department of Natural Resources, as the state environmental agency was called then, believed the structures were navigational hazards and destructive to sea grasses. And because they had no plumbing, the people using them as bunk houses were likely creating sanitation problems.
Locals who wanted to preserve the buildings were able to debunk each concern, according to Gladys Schneider of Bokeelia. She was hired as a consultant to compile the documentation needed to have the shanties declared historic.
“The water was so shallow around them you couldn’t hit them if you tried — you would run aground first,” Schneider said. “The campers were using chemical toilets.
And the cabins were high enough up that plenty of sea life could live underneath them.”
Still, the battle to save the cabins and ice shacks dragged on for four years. In 1991, 10 of the buildings were placed on the National Register of Historic Places. At least one has since been destroyed by fire.
Ray Wisher of east Fort Myers, who bought the Norton cabin with several fishing buddies around 1958, was one of the leaders of the preservation campaign. It was a three-pronged crusade along legal, political and historical fronts, he said.
“We started raising hell,” Wisher recalled. “It was a hell of a battle. It was democracy in action.”
About the same time, the state’s division of historic resources was pushing to identify significant sites around Florida. A representative toured the fish cabins and determined which could be considered for historic status because of their importance in local heritage.
“The history of our resources is important to who are today,” Schneider said. “It can help explain settlement patterns, how people used to subsist without depleting resources. And the architecture is interesting.”
Charlotte Harbor’s importance as a productive fishery reaches from prehistoric time until the present, according to documents acquired from the state bureau of historic preservation.
Although some commercial fishermen remain, many abandoned the livelihood when the state restricted the kind of nets they could use in 1995.
The Spanish established fisheries there as early as the beginning of the 17th century.
But it was the arrival of the railroad in Punta Gorda in 1886 that revolutionized the Charlotte Harbor industry and made it one of the most important in the state.
Suddenly, fresh fish could be shipped directly to northern markets; it no longer had to be dried and salted and shipped by sail or steamer.
In 1897, 230 local people worked in offshore fishing. By the 1930s, they numbered about 400, state documents show.
The work was strenuous and the life isolated. Some fishermen lived permanently in the cabins the fish companies built from Charlotte Harbor south to San Carlos Bay.
Manny Norton’s cabin and a cluster of others were built at Captiva Rocks, a shoal between Pine Island and Cayo Costa.
Made of pine and sometimes cypress, they were meant to withstand the extremes of subtropical sun, wind and rain. Some have metal gable roofs and board-and-batten siding. Their screened windows are covered with hinged shutters that can be propped open to circulate air.
Norton spent months at a time at Captiva Rocks. Even though he had a passel of children in town, his life revolved around the 450-square-foot cabin surrounded by wood decks and a dock. An outhouse and water tank were separated from the one-room shack.
The simple life appealed to Norton. He tuned in to nature. He developed an uncanny sense of the place and how the fish traveled, grandson Bigelow said. He sometimes navigated without running lights at night.
“He was one of the happiest men I ever met in my life — even when the fishing was bad,” Bigelow recalled. “He had a great, big cast-iron stove. When we’d go down, he would make a pan of biscuits. One of his joys in life was making biscuits.”
His grandfather’s contentment was contagious. Bigelow’s father, Charlie Sr., worked in commercial real estate in town. When he boated out to visit Norton, he would sleep on the cabin’s wood floor, where the breezes crossed through the room and kissed the skin.
“He was in bliss,” Bigelow said.
Up for sale
Generations of Lee County residents have been able to share that bliss since the pre-war Charlotte Harbor fishery dwindled.
The fish companies’ main dock at Punta Gorda burned down in 1939. As boating technology and road construction improved, fishermen no longer needed to bunk out on the water.
When the Punta Gorda Fish Co. closed in 1957, it started selling its cabins to recreational anglers who leased the submerged land.
Families who owned a share in a cabin could come out and tie up for a weekend getaway. They packed coolers and ate whatever fish they caught. Some added propane-powered lights and refrigerators.
Ray and Barbara Wisher’s photo albums are full of gold-tinged color photographs of family and friends vacationing at the Norton cabin. Snapshots show teenage boys cleaning fish on the deck, women sunbathing in modest suits and tanned men sleeping in white skivvies in the nighttime heat.
As Bigelow said, it was bliss. At least until dusk fell and mosquitoes descended.
“Just as the sun started to set, they would come out,” Barbara Wisher said. “As much as I loved being out there, that’s when you went in the cabin.”
The Wishers sold their interest in the cabin just before Hurricane Charley blasted through Pine Island Sound in 2004. The Norton cabin was heavily damaged but not beyond repair, Ray Wisher said.
Storms have taken their toll on the fish cabins and ice houses. Others have been lost in mystery: Three fish houses went up in flames in July 1995. Investigators found no witnesses, and potential evidence was washed away by heavy rains, according to The News-Press archives.
The old cabins that remain remind people to honor the past, Ray Wisher said.
“These stories should not be lost,” he said. “These stories should be retold
periodically to let folks know what went before.” Credit Fort Myers News Press
This Chapter Nautical History
The Section History of Fish Huts
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