Why is Tarpon Springs known for sponges?
In the late 1800s, the first residents settled into the bayou area and named this beautiful place Tarpon Springs. Shortly after the settlers moved in, a wealthy man named Hamilton Disston bought 4 million acres of land in Florida from the state government for $0.25 per acre, which included Tarpon Springs. Shortly thereafter, John Cheney, one of Disston's associates, discovered that money could be made harvesting gulf sponges. People needed sponges to clean their bodies, homes, dishes, etc. It wasn't long before experienced Greek divers joined and the industry started booming.
The influx of divers and sponges brought more people to the area, and homes and businesses were built. One of those homes apparently was ours, which was built in 1901! The Sponge Exchange bidding system was created in 1907. Advancements in diving equipment abounded. For 30 years, the sponge industry boomed, even larger than the tourism industry. During this time, Tarpon Springs became known as the "sponge capital of the world."
In the 1940s, however, a sickness spread through the sponge beds. That, in combination with the proliferation of synthetic sponges, meant the sponge industry was never the same after that. Although new beds were found later, and sponging still occurs in Tarpon Springs, we are still known and visited for our Greek cultural influence and rich history.
About a month into living in Tarpon Springs full-time, we visited two sponge museums on the Sponge Docks. The first was called The Sponge Factory, and it is located at the beginning of the sponge docks close to Pinellas Avenue, which is about a 15-minute walk from our house. Much of the above information was learned there. If you go, you'll also learn about the different kinds of sponges and what they're best used for. Of course, there is also a gift shop and I say this with no sarcasm whatsoever: my family are getting sponges for Christmas.
After that visit, we walked a little further along the docks to Spongeorama Sponge Factory. The video you can watch there is very old, literally older than me. It was very informative, however, and went into great detail about the actual sponges - wool, yellow, and silk - and their uses. We also learned that a loofa is a vegetable.
We highly recommend if you visit Tarpon Springs that you learn about the sponge diving history. These are two great places to get some of that information. You can also learn more from the Tarpon Springs Historical Society and SpongeDocks.net.