World's Largest Sponge Market
A 1916 Sketch of Tarpon Springs

Tarpon Springs, on the west coast of Florida, claims the distinction of being the largest sponge market in the western hemisphere. Over a hundred schooners with their diving boats sail from its little river harbor to the sponge beds in the gulf; and a local colony of 2000 Greeks are engaged almost wholly in the sponge business. They have imported their native methods unchanged, even employing the same picturesque boats with high prows and brilliant colors that are used in the Mediterranean.

The Greeks have a monopoly of the business of diving for sponges, writes Frederick J. Haskin. They go down into  100 feet of water in rubber suits and helmets, cut the sponges from the bottom with a knife and bring them to the surface in nets. Now and again a man gets his rubber lines tangled and his air supply in cut off, or he remains below too long and becomes paralyzed. Sometimes a big man-eating shark becomes unduly curious and makes a menacing swoop at the diver. His usual defense in such a case is to open his sleeve and let out a rush of air bubbles, which almost invariably frightens the shart away.

At any rate, these undersea adventures do not appeal to the Americans. They are willing to take a risk for sufficient cause, but not for a diver’s wages. Before the Greeks came to Florida sponges were taken only by colored men, who went out in rowboats and “hooked” sponges in comparatively shallow waters with a long pole. It was a primitive and ineffectual method and all Florida did not produce a fraction of what is exported annually from Tarpon Springs alone.

The Greeks saw their opportunity and went first to another Florida town farther south where they invested $6,000 in a schooner and began diving for sponges with great success. The local people held a mass meeting, decided they did not want any “furriners,” ran the Greeks out of town and burned up their boats.

The Greeks then went to Tarpon Springs, where they received a very different reception. The people realized the Greeks could develop the sponge industry to the great benefit to the town. So they purchased boats and equipment for these men from the Mediterranean and set them to work.

Both the Greek colony and the sponge business grew apace. The Greeks now own their own boats and about half of the local firms dealing in sponges are owned by Greeks. They also conduct all of the ice cream parlors, barber shops, and poolrooms in Tarpon Springs.

Greeks Have Their Own Quarters

Although the Greeks dwell in their own quarter of the town and preserve their national customs, , they live in perfect amity with the Americans. There are very prosperous firms in the sponge business which are conducted by Greeks and Americans working in partnership.

The Greek likes American business methods, American money, American “movies” and many other American things; but when it comes to cheese, wine and candy, he insists on having his own. Hence there are in Tarpon Springs many picturesque little shops dealing in these things and other strictly Greek dainties which are beyond the appreciation of an American palate. There are also Greek coffee houses, where you may see the divers In from the gulf, sipping the drink from little cups and smoking water pipes.

As sponges become scarcer the fleets have to go farther and farther out into the gulf to get a good harvest. They now usually remain two or three months at a time, returning all together certain times of the year when great sales are held. Early fall, Christmas and Easter are the times of the most important sales and upon these occasions Tarpon Springs becomes one of the liveliest little town on the globe.

The Greek diver is a daring happy-go-lucky chap who makes big wages and does not believe in saving them. When he hits town he usually collects several hundred dollars and proceeds zealously to spend it all before going to sea again. He is a liberal and boisterous patron of wizenboys and coffee houses and movies. He decks himself in the gaudiest and most expensive clothes that money can buy. He rather overruns the town, but seldom does any harm either to himself or any one else

Easter is the most important occasion of all, being a Greek holiday. There is much feasting and candle light procession through the streets at night. At the time of Christmas sale the Greek cross day is celebrated. The whole colony gathers at the bayou behind the town. The young men, all expert swimmers, line up on the bank, clad only in trunks. The priest throws a wooden cross into the water and there is a race for it, the boy who wins it receiving a prize.

Several Kinds of Sponges

When the sponges are brought up by the divers they bear no resemblance whatsoever of what you buy in a drug store, for the commercial sponge is merely the skeleton of an animal. In the natural state it is covered by a thick mucus. This is pounded and washed out, the roots are cut off with sheep shears, the sponges are sorted according to variety and strung in bunches of ten to thirty each. There are a number of varieties. The wool sponges are the most valuable, others being grass, yellow and wire sponges.

Sponges of all kinds are becoming scarce and the prices they bring are surprising. Wool sponges bring from two to four dollars a pound. A little ragged heap of sponges that you could cart away in a wheelbarrow often sells for several hundred dollars. The sponges grow in banks upon the bottom of the gulf and the great object of the fisher is to discover a new bank, for a large one is a veritable bonanza.

When a sale is held the sponges are carried to the waterfront, where they form great heaps, divided according to size and quality. The buyers are Americans, most of whom live in Tarpon Springs as representatives of various northern firms. The Greeks, who own the sponges, are on hand to exhibit them and extol their value, but there is no haggling. Sealed bids are made upon each lot, and the highest offer gets the sponges.

Tarpon Springs is an absolutely complete and independent unit in the sponge business. There is a local supply house which deals in all the paraphernalia of the divers, and the brass helmets which they wear are made by a local machine shop. For the rest, the outfit consists of a rubber suit, iron shoes weighing 12 pounds, rubber hose to connect the diver with the pump on deck and the rope by which he is lowered.

From Tarpon Springs the sponges go chiefly to New York, Chicago and Cincinnati, where they receive the final process of bleaching, and are then placed on the retail market. 

Source: The Tommahawk (Minn.): 6-21-1916

Author: Frederick J. Haskin

Transcribed, Formatted and Submitted by Linda Flowers

This Page Created December 14, 2015
Copyrighted 2015- Linda Flowers
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