BY LIZA STROUT - It was the first of the popular Historical Society series “History Bytes,” and Capts. Robert and Johnny Johnson spoke to a full house at the Johann Fust Community Library on Wednesday, Feb.1 to open the season’s series.
A crowd of more than 40 was on hand to learn about the history of the harbor pilot family, which stretches from 1888 through 2001. It was at that time that the FPL fuel dock shut down and the last of the Boca Grande harbor pilots, Kingsmore Johnson, Jr., retired.
Until a just a few months ago, Johnny Johnson worked in Key West, where he piloted cruise ships and the occasional Navy vessel into the harbor. He was the last active pilot in the Johnson family.While anyone can become a harbor pilot, the intimate knowledge of local waters meant that training led to an almost guild-like master/apprentice system. Sons would learn the job at their fathers’ knees. Even today, with all of the technology available for navigation, there are still harbor pilots to help ships move in and out of tricky waters.
Robert and his wife Roberta live on Gasparilla Island, in the old Quarantine House. When the federal government built a new quarantine station on the north end of Cayo Costa at the turn of the 20th Century, the Johnson family bought the old house. At some point, they had it moved back from the water’s edge to its current location at the corner of Belcher Road.
Robert told a few stories of the “cultural exchanges” that occurred between those working at the port and the crews of the ships that came to pick up phosphate. Germans, Italians, Greeks, and Russians; ships from all over the world pulled up to the dock. Since it took up to 24 hours to load a ship, the officers and crew were more than happy to have a chance to see new faces ... except the Russians. Political officers ensured that only the Russian captains ever met anyone from the outside.
One evening, a group of Italian officers were looking for a local “taverna” to while away the hours. On their way toward downtown, they saw light and heard music. Assuming that this was the establishment the sought, they peeked in the windows. It was Robert and Roberta’s house. In a spirit of international goodwill, the Johnsons invited the Italians to spend the evening with them. When the Johnsons woke up the next morning, they found that the Italians had returned overnight and completely stocked their bar with a wide selection of liquors as thanks.
The Johnson family wants to ensure that while the era of the bustling port may have passed, those days will never be forgotten.
History Bytes will continue Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 11 a.m. at the Johann Fust Community Library with “The Polk, Gaines, and Fugate Families.” The programs are free and open to the public. Call the Historical Society at 964-1600 with any questions.
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