We were recently asked to pinpoint the date when the Tarpon Springs sponge industry really got going in a big way, and when the first large group of Greeks arrived in town. Well we'd say that June 18th, 1905 should be the recognized date, and most of the Greeks arrived toward the end of 1905.
However, prior to those dates, the sponge business already had a good start in the area. Early sponge-fishermen for more than a half-century had been bringing their sponge catches to the Anclote Keys and Bailey's Bluff beaches to start the curing process. Almost all of the spongers were from Cuba, the Bahamas or Key West, and they returned to those places to sell their sponges.
From small boats in shallow waters, they speared the sponges on the Gulf floor or used long poles with hooks at the end to pull them up after sighting the sponges through glass bottom buckets.
In 1889 John K. Cheney, a wealthy Philadelphia banker, observed the returning sponge boats at Key West, and soon built warehouses in Tarpon to try to make it the leading market. He and Ernest Meres were the first sponge merchants in Tarpon, buying for New York interests. The sponges were brought by wagon from the "crawls" near the Bluff. At the Anclote River mouth, Granville Noblit Sr. had the livery business.
The first diver was Demosthenes Kavasilas, who brought his experience from the Mediterranean Sea, as did the second diver, Stylianos Besis.
The divers were amazed at the natural fortune of the deep which met their searching eyes - sponges by the thousands darkened the virgin and untrodden bars. There were thousands of corals of all colors and shapes; thick, wildgrape vines hard to get through; multi-colored peacock feathers of the sea; beautiful gardens through which hundreds of fish of many kinds traveled.
Every 10 minutes the divers sent up baskets filled with large wool-sponges, the best and sturdiest in the world, by evening the diving boat was filled with sponges. The first trip was an overwhelming success, and they returned to Anclote Key and Tarpon soon after, all very happy people!
They added more boats and men as fast as possible, and they even advertised in Greece for more divers and boat men. By the end of 1905, more than 500 young and strong spongers arrived.
The first Greek to move to Tarpon Springs was John Cocoris, a buyer for Lembesis of New York who arrived in 1896. He'd come to America in 1895 from his home in Leonidion, Kynourias, Greece. By 1905, John and brothers were employed by Cheney, and they had all bid farewell to Spyros Vouteres of New York.
He went to Greece, hired expert sponge divers, a diving engine, diving suits, lifelines, etc. Meanwhile, the others had bought a boat, The Pandora, for $180, which they quickly renamed "Hope" (Elpis in Greek).
And so it was on June 18, 1905, the first sponge boat here with mechanized sponging equipment set sail for the deeper waters of the Gulf of Mexico. But first, they built a house to live in and a warehouse for the sponges on the Anclote Keys. Then they sailed a few miles into the Gulf, lowered the sails and prepared for the moment they'd so anxiously awaited. For the first time, human feet would walk on the Gulf floor, prod into the mysteries of its depths, and, hopefully, reap the treasure of the sponges there.
The exodus to Tarpon Springs was amazing. The happy news spread all over Greece and the Aegean Sea, especially from the Dodecanese Islands. Whole sponging fleets and crews came in many cases, particularly from the islands of Kalymnos, Halki, Symi, Hydra, Spetse, Aegena and others.
None of these Greek men brought a family; they were either unmarried or left their wives and children behind. The only Greek woman in Tarpon at that time was John Cocoris' wife, Anna, with her Son, Michael. Later, their daughter Stamatina arrived. She was the first Greek child to be born in Tarpon in 1906.
Soon, mostly Greeks came to Tarpon to open restaurants, candy stores, coffee houses, taverns and grocery stores. Many of them through the years along with the spongers, returned to their homeland when they saved enough money.
But as we know, thousands stayed in Tarpon Springs, and have helped it progress.