When you drive into the old part of Tarpon Springs southbound, you come across a bridge and may spy a bright blue and gold sign by the roadside. It features an old-fashioned diving helmet—the sort you’d see in old movies or even cartoons—and if you don’t bother to read its text, you’d be forgiven for assume it advertises a seafood restaurant or dockside bar. Yet such is not the case. In fact, this is the sign for A. Lerios Marine, a small machine shop founded in 1913 by a Greek immigrant for the primary purpose of manufacturing diving helmets for sponge divers in Tarpon Springs.
Today the gentleman’s grandson carries on the shop, though his orders for hand-crafted diving helmets are few and far between. He is possibly the last craftsman producing these traditional diving helmets in the world, and if so, it’s only fitting he is located in Tarpon Springs. Since around 1905, Tarpon Springs has become one of the world’s centers of sponge-diving, a commercial enterprise where divers enter the water to collect natural sponges and for many centuries the primary means of harvesting such sponges. It is a talent devised by the Greeks and was also the foundations for the sport we now call free-diving: without any additional air source or SCUBA apparatus a diver held his breath and dove deep to retrieve the sponges.
Later it was found more practical to hook a hose to an air source aboard a boat and connect this to a diver’s helmet so he could remain below longer. Thus the copper diving helmets were born and for many decades were hand-crafted. SCUBA and other techniques allowed greater ease in commercial diving over the years, but for many sponge divers in Tarpon Springs and back in Greece, the old ways persisted for quite some time. Tarpon Springs, though a popular tourist destination today, still is very alive with tradition.
Pinellas County, in which Tarpon Springs resides, was founded in the 1870’s by cattle ranching homesteaders like much of rural central Florida. Removed from Tampa via the expansive Tampa Bay, Pinellas County long remained remote and frontier-like, despite Tampa’s growth. Fishing and farming were the primary occupations here, though in the 1890’s tourism started to develop along with the first wave of Floridian tourism seen elsewhere in the state. About that time a businessman named John Cheyney sought means to harvest the sponges found growing in the local waters.
His first efforts were to recruit white and black settlers familiar with seafaring from Key West and elsewhere in Florida and the Caribbean for this enterprise, but his real success came when he teamed up with a Greek immigrant named John Cocoris who had come to Tarpon Springs via New York City and was versed in traditional Greek techniques for sponge diving. Cocoris brought Greek immigrants from the Dodecanese Islands who knew how to dive for the sponges and other aspects of such operations. Over the 1920’s and 1930’s the sponge-diving business grew and made both Cheyney and Cocoris very wealthy men. It also set the stage for Tarpon Springs to become the largest community of Greek-Americans in the entire nation, a somewhat improbable yet actually very logical outpost of Greek traditions in the American South.
While a tourist trade based around sponge-diving and dolphin boat tours now forms the basis of local economy in Tarpon Springs, actual sponge production is still alive and well and the town is very much still a vivid, living Greek community with not only the expected Greek restaurants catering to tourists but bakeries and food stores catering primarily to the local residents. Occasionally, Greek will be heard spoken, mostly by older couples taking evening walks, and Greek pop music such as the much-beloved superstar Anna Vissi can be heard coming out of shops along Dodecanese Boulevard and Athens Street.
Places like the Agora Food Market and the Halki Market provide Greek foodstuffs such as many varieties of olive oil, Greek pastas, cheeses, and other ingredients for cooking. Older Greek-American ladies came in one by one while I was at the Agora market, the cashier looking up and smiling and greeting each one by name. Clearly, this isn’t a business just here for the tourists at all—these ladies will soon be in their kitchens a block or so away cooking up something delicious for dinner just as they learned to do from their mothers years ago, who in turn probably learned from their own mothers on some Greek island.
At Halki Market, fresh meat—including lamb, which is a staple of Greek cuisine—and fresh seafood round out the dry goods such as pasta used in Greek cooking. The waters of Florida’s Gulf Coast are not so different in a sense from those of Greece, providing a diversity and bounty of seafood with species based in sub-tropical waters. Traditional recipes were probably not too difficult to adapt to the seafood encountered here by the first wave of Greek immigrants, who were of course the sponge-divers and their families and thus seafaring people as well. At Halki, there is a feeling of a neighborhood grocer that provides as far as possible all the goods one will need for the evening meal, and it’s a locus of community and gossip in the way that old-time post offices, banks, and grocers all across the South—and indeed across the world—have been for ages.
Food is the theme that unites all aspects of Tarpon Springs, it seems, and you would expect a number of good Greek restaurants, certainly. Hellas is one of the local favorites, although somewhat young by standards here, having been founded in 1970—long after the heyday of Tarpon Springs’ sponge-diving industry. Still, it readily made a name for itself, both as a restaurant offering traditional Greek favorites and as a bakery. Today, aside from selling a seemingly endless variety of Greek pastries and cakes to consumers, Hellas also provides wholesale baked goods—especially baklava—for other Greek festivals and restaurants around Florida. If you’ve had tasty baklava at many locations in Florida, unless the restaurant in fact prepares the time-consuming sweets themselves, there is a very good chance they were made by Hellas. Their food demonstrates the evolution of Greek cuisine in America: many dishes are admittedly not exactly what you may find in Greece, but they are true to Greek-American traditions which embraced saganaki-style flaming cheese (itself invented in a Greek restaurant in Chicago) and even hamburgers. It may not be exactly what is eaten in Athens, but it is what residents of Tarpon Springs grew up on in their families’ kitchens and the much-beloved local restaurant scene alike.
Most of the downtown of Tarpon Springs was built between 1900 and the later 1920’s, and by the 1930’s the sponge business and the Greek immigrants it drew to the area were thriving. Commercial buildings betray the wealth of the time of their construction with fancy tile-work and impressive façades. Today, aside from the remaining sponge trade, fishing charters are a big business here, and Tarpon Springs is a fine place to embark on a Gulf fishing expedition.
Certainly, the dolphin-viewing cruises, a small yet earnest aquarium, and sponge-diving demonstrations (also done aboard ship on some cruises) are a big draw insofar as tourism here, but all the same, just strolling the sponge docks and reflecting on the history of this unique place can occupy hours. The South has many diverse ethnic communities, all with their own stories, their own histories, and Tarpon Springs is a perfect example.