Tarpon Springs, Junction of Greek Heritage and Florida History

By: Jon Wilson

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For a time, sponges – retrieved from Gulf of Mexico depths by intrepid divers in full suits – outstripped citrus products as Florida's main export. Now, Tarpon Springs combines this history with classic Florida beauty to make for an offbeat, cultural getaway.

TARPON SPRINGS – Tucked in a quieter corner of the bustling Tampa Bay metro region, this city of about 25,000 spreads a subtle magic that transports visitors to other times, other places.
It blends the moods of Victorian-era Florida, small-town America and – most of all – the vibrant character of its Greek heritage.

Greek immigrants built Tarpon Springs' signature sponge industry, turning a remote village into what was called "the sponge capital of the world." For a time sponges, retrieved from Gulf of Mexico depths by intrepid divers in full suits, outstripped citrus products as Florida's main export.

The Hellenic influence remains strong today. According to census figures, more than one in 10 residents claim Greek descent, giving Tarpon Springs a higher percentage of Greek-Americans than any other American city. More than seven percent report that they speak Greek in their homes. The high school sports teams are nicknamed "Spongers."

Venture from the Anclote River's original sponge docks up side streets, peer into small cafes or storefront meeting rooms, and you may spy men talking loudly in Greek, playing cards and perhaps enjoying a bottle of tangy retsina wine. The aromas of garlic lamb and horiatiko – baked chicken – mingle with the honeydew scents of confections such as baklava and loukoumades.

"We have 125 businesses, 25 restaurants, three or four boat rides, and I don't know how many bakeries," says George Billiris, whose family came to Tarpon Springs in 1904. His grandfather, father and uncle helped establish the sponge industry.

"It was like a gold rush when it started," says Billiris, who at 84 years old still works on the docks with his St. Nicholas Boat Line. It began in 1924 as an attraction offering tourists a boat ride and a chance to learn about sponge-diving. And thus from sponges sprung the tourist industry.

"We're the cause of tourism in Tarpon Springs. We've made 77 documentaries in seven languages, and we're now working on one with Japan," Billiris says.

Tarpon Springs began in 1875 as a simple pioneer settlement amid thick oak and pine stands, alive with deer and wild turkey. The city's name is said to have been coined in 1880 when Mary Ormond Boyer, standing on the banks of Spring Bayou, spied fish jumping: "Look at the tarpon spring!"

No matter that the fish probably were mullet; residents liked the ring of the name.

The village soon attracted wealthy out-of-state visitors, including former Arizona Gov. Anson P.K. Safford, who built a mansion near the bayou in 1883. The Safford house remains as a history museum open two days a week.

The coming of the Orange Belt Railroad in the mid-1880s helped the town grow, and the old depot also offers a museum.

Spring Bayou now is the site of the largest Epiphany celebration in America. In a 105-year-old tradition, boys and young men dive for a cross every Jan. 6 in the chilly water; whoever retrieves it gets a year of good luck, according to tradition. This year, about 12,000 visitors witnessed the celebration.    

The 1880s also saw the first Greek immigrants arrive, and in 1905, John Cocoris introduced diving techniques. He recruited spongers from Greece's Dodecanese Islands, whose name resonates today: Dodecanese Boulevard in the heart of the sponge district. Working boats, sprouting a forest of masts, are lashed together at the docks. Recorded music from the bazouki, a stringed instrument, tinkles along the avenue, redolent with the gumbo-like aroma of a saltwater fishing village and the ever-present Greek cooking.

"It's one of the last remaining small-boat points of consequence in Florida," Billiris says.

Shops along Dodecanese are decorated in light blue and white, the same hues of the Greek flag, which floats alongside the Stars and Stripes in the old Sponge Exchange, now a courtyard with shops.

It seems a perfect blend of the old and the new.

If You Go

Tarpon Springs: Access from U.S. 19 in Pinellas County. Turn west on County Road 582, also called Tarpon Avenue, and travel about a mile to downtown. To reach the sponge docks, turn right off CR 582 on Pinellas Avenue and after less than a mile, turn left on Dodecanese Boulevard.

Sponge Docks and Boat Tours

All along Dodecanese Boulevard

Tarpon Springs Aquarium

850 Dodecanese Boulevard
727-938-5378
Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Adults, $7.75; seniors $7; children three to 11, $5; under three, free.

Spongeorama
510 Dodecanese Boulevard
727-943-2164
Open 10:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Free museum and movie. Plus, various cruises available with varying times.

St. Nicholas Greek Orthodox Cathedral

36 N Pinellas Ave.
727-937-3540
Open to visitors and worshipers 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily.

St. Michael's Shrine
113 Hope Street
Built by a family as a tribute to their son's miraculous cure.

Safford House Museum
23 Parkin Court off Spring Boulevard, near Spring Bayou
727-937-1130
Open 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday and Friday. Adults, $3; accompanied children, free.

Heritage Museum

100 Beekman Lane in Craig Park on Spring Bayou
727-937-0686
Permanent interactive exhibit about Greek heritage.
Open noon to 4 p.m. Tuesday and Friday. $3, adults; accompanied children, free.
 
Historic Railroad Depot
106 East Tarpon Avenue
727-943-4624
Open 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday; free.
 
Cultural Center
101 South Pinellas Avenue
727-942-5605
Open 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Friday; free admission to exhibits.

Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art
600 Klosterman Road
727-712-5762
Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Saturdays; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Thursdays; 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Fridays; 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays; closed Mondays and holidays. $5, adults; $4, seniors; free to students with ID, military personnel and families with ID, and children.

For more information, contact the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce at 727-937-6109 or www.tarponspringschamber.org.

VISIT FLORIDA contributor Jon Wilson is a former editor and reporter for the St. Petersburg Times. He works for the Florida Humanities Council and lives in St. Petersburg.

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