By Jon Wilson
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 history combined with classic Florida beauty 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," said 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," said Billiris, whoin his 80s 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 said.
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 Tarpon Springs history museum open two days a week.
The coming of the Orange Belt Railroad in the mid-1880s helped the Florida greek 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 said.
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.
When 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
St. Michael's Shrine
113 Hope Street
Safford House Museum
23 Parkin Court off Spring Boulevard, near Spring Bayou
100 Beekman Lane in Craig Park on Spring Bayou
Historic Railroad Depot
106 East Tarpon Avenue
101 South Pinellas Avenue
Leepa-Rattner Museum of Art
600 Klosterman Road
For more information, contact the Tarpon Springs Chamber of Commerce at 727-937-6109 or tarponspringschamber.org.