By: Nick Deonas
The following is an excerpt from the FREE book we are offering when you sign up for the daily news feed from SearchAmelia.com.
The first shrimp boat built by Mike Tiliakos was twenty feet in length. In 1919, when he built this first boat the industry was basically only six years old and no one thought it would grow into a global trade. Mike Tiliakos was a large man with big hands accustom to hard work and making things happen. He came to Fernandina in 1912 from Kalymnos, Greece. Mike was a third generation boat builder and at the age of eighteen decided to make his way to America and set new roots, that is exactly what he did. Mike first went to Tarpon Springs, Florida and worked in the sponge business before coming to Amelia Island for a visit.
Mike had no idea that he would fall in love with Fernandina or a eighteen year old, blue eyed Irish girl. Mike moved from Tarpon Springs to Fernandina and started working for a boat builder named Lambros until he could establish himself and get financial backing for starting his own business. Mike had a bicycle and a box of simple tools when he took Clara Cynthia Franks as his bride in 1919. Mike was a well liked man within the business community in Fernandina and it didn’t take long for him to find backers, before the end of 1919 he was in business for himself. From that time until his death in 1953 he maintained his love affair with both the town and his Clara. Mike and Clara had three children, Nick, Johnny and Anna. Johnny worked with his father in the boat building business and Nick managed their fleet of shrimp boats, Anna married Jimmy Deonas.
When Mike and Clara married she had no idea that she lost her citizen ship by marring an alien. She learned of this twenty years later and was naturalized as an American citizen, not bad for a girl born in Georgia and raised in Florida. Mike bought land on the Amelia River, 550 feet on the river just south of Ash Street, where the south parking lot for the city marina is located today. Mike not only built boats for other people but built them for himself also; he also built a packing house for processing, packing and shipping. Just ten years after Mike started his own business the country fell into the great depression. Mike was affected just as everyone else in this nation. Through trading of land and labor and doing work for barter Mike and Clara made it through those hard times.
When Mike was building boats he was happiest. He loved his family and his business and enjoyed a special zest for life, but he was old country Greek. He was the head of the household, even selecting his only daughter’s husband. He was a generous and proud man who was always willing to lend a helping hand to a friend. Mike had many friends and knew there were always many favors he could call in if needed.
Mike and Jimmy built boats the same way, the old world way. Each boat had three natural crook knees of live oak placed in the stern for support. They used the old process of boiling 2 X 4s in clear water and bending them while they were steaming hot into the shape needed. Once the wood cooled the shape was set and placed in the boat, these were the oak ribs of the boat. Both Mike and Jimmy had a unique way of making building these massive boats look so easy, and for them it was because of their love of boats.
Mike and Clara lived on North Fletcher Avenue on the ocean. Mike always wanted to be near the sea at all times. He would leave at daybreak to go the boatyard and start his day. When other workers arrived Mike had already accomplished much and his day was just beginning. Clara stayed home and took care of the house and children. Mike was loyal to his workers; one worker who started with him at an early age was Emanuel “Manny” Drummond. Manny worked with Mike and Johnny for years and was an accomplished boat builder himself; he passed his knowledge on to his son Osborn.
Mike died on May 8th, 1953 of cancer. Even during his illness he was still at the boatyard every day. I can remember a tool room that had a wicker cot in it, he would lay down on it during the day. To say this man had a love of family and business would be an understatement. His son Johnny was only 23 years old when his father died at the age of 61, Johnny continued to carry on the business of boat building. His brother Nick, took charge of rigging and managing the shrimp boats they owned together. Mike never returned to Greece for a visit, he loved Fernandina and his work and just never found the time.
The first boat Johnny built after his father died was named the Mr. Mike and over the next twenty years he built over 84 boats. Johnny died at the young age of 43 and that closed the chapter on Tiliakos boat building.