Think about it: The Sponge Capital of the World

“Do you ever wonder how much deeper the ocean would be without sponges.” — Stephen Hawking

For a number of years, Evie and I have enjoyed going south for a few weeks during the coldest part of the winter. We love the Florida Keys and have often said that it is like being in another country without the need of a passport.

Recently, however, we have stayed in the Tampa area. When my brother, Ken, heard of our plans he suggested we visit Tarpon Springs, the quaint small town on the west side of northern Florida. “You’ll love it,” he said. With such a recommendation, we had to check it out.

It was a beautiful day just north of Tampa when we started driving south on Route 589. After a few miles we took the exit to travel west on Route 60, the sun sparkled on the waters of Old Tampa Bay as we crossed over to Clearwater. Since it was close to noon, we stopped at Frenchy’s Rockaway Grill, a rustic seafood restaurant which looks out over the Gulf of Mexico. The white, windswept sand along the edge of the parking lot resembled small snowdrifts. We smiled as our sandals touched the warm sand.

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After lunch we drove north on Route 19 (Alt.) along the coast toward Tarpon Springs. Dunedin. Lasating. Curlew Landings. Each small town seemed to invite us to stop and explore but we knew if we did, we would never make it to our destination.

We will never forget driving into Tarpon Springs for the first time. The place was bustling with activity. The evidence of sponges was everywhere — on many signs and the fronts of most stores. We parked our car and joined a host of other visitors walking along the docks looking at the old boats.

A historic marker caught my attention: “Tarpon Springs Sponge Industry – the Gulf waters off the west coast of Florida north of Tampa Bay comprise one of the few areas of the world where the species of natural sponges suitable for commercial use are found.” I took a quick picture to remind me to do a little research later.

The first settlers in the area (around 1876) were A. W. Ormand and his daughter Mary. The city’s name is said to have been coined when Mary, standing on the banks of the Spring Bayou, spied fish jumping: “Look at the tarpon spring.” (Actually the fish were mullet, not tarpon). Tarpon Springs was incorporated in 1887 with a population of 52 residents.

One of the early residents, John Cheyney, discovered that money could be made by harvesting the sponges which grew in the waters of the Gulf. It wasn’t long before the sponge industry became the community’s most important industry. By 1890, the Cheysey Sponge Company sold almost a million dollars’ worth of sponges that year.

In the next few years, experienced divers from Greece were brought to Tarpon Springs. By 1905, over 500 Greek sponge divers wearing rubberized diving suits and helmets were at work using 50 boats.

For 30 years the sponge industry was the largest industry in Florida – larger than citrus or tourism. Tarpon Springs was known as the “Sponge Capital of the World.”

In the 1940s, blight reduced the growth of sponges and by the 1950s sponging as a profitable industry was nearly wiped out. However, in the 1980s new sponge beds were found and today Tarpon Springs is back to being the leader in the world’s natural sponge market.

Today Greek restaurants and specialty shops line the streets. Evie and I have been back several times and each time we love soaking in the Greek culture and quaint charm of the town.

Next time someone suggests you visit a place where you have never been, give it a try. You may be surprised, like Evie and I were, by what we found.

Think about it.

Dr. Don Meyer is president emeritus of the University of Valley Forge, Phoenixville. Connect via dgmeyer@valleyforge.edu, Facebook.com/DrDonMeyer, www.DrDonMeyer.com, Twitter and Instagram: @DrDonMeyer.