Have you every thought about where the (real) sponge you clean your kitchen with or the loofah you keep in your shower come from? Hint: It’s not Publix.

The truth is, natural sponges used to be live animals, growing on the ocean or Gulf of Mexico floors. And the town of Tarpon Springs was built and still thrives on harvesting and selling those sponges all over the world.

While the first settlers arrived in what is now known as Tarpon Springs in 1876, it wasn’t incorporated until 1887. At the time, the new town only had 52 residents, but one of them was a man named John Cheney, who was a promoter working for Disston Saw Works.

Once he found out that he could make a living harvesting sponges growing in the Gulf, it wasn’t long before he had helped to establish sponging as Tarpon Springs’ most successful industry. The Cheney Sponge Company sold almost one million dollars-worth of sponges in 1890 and over the next few years, began hiring divers from Greece who were already experienced in the trade.

When you visit Tarpon Springs today, you can discover all about the sponging industry and how it helped build the Greek community there. The docks where the sponges are brought into lie downtown along the Anclote River and Dodecanese Boulevard, which is also where the majority of shops and restaurants are situated.

Parking downtown is not usually a problem, and the day I went, I parked behind Yanni’s Restaurant at a rate of only $3 a day. If you order some food at the restaurant, you can even get the $3 back. Inside the family’s store behind the restaurant, the Spongeorama Sponge Factory, they offer a free, continuously shown video about the history of Tarpon Springs and the sponging industry, which is very interesting.

The woman inside the store informed me that two sponge boats had just come back in and I should go take a look, so I walked about 50 yards down the street and I was at the docks.

While they were cleaning and unloading their catch of sponges, I spoke to the divers. One of them told me that his boat had been out for 10 days, and after spending two days on land, he was going to head out again. That’s the life of someone who puts on that heavy dive suit and spends his or her days at the bottom of the Gulf.

The downtown area of Tarpon Springs that the sponging industry built is also rich in culture and history. When I was walking down Dodecanese Boulevard, many of the shop and restaurant owners were standing outside their establishments to talk to passersby. Some were promoting specials they had going on, but most were just striking up a conversation. And many of them were running businesses that their ancestors had begun long ago.

It was an incredibly friendly and comfortable place, and the smells wafting from the Greek restaurants and bakeries was heavenly. If you don’t have time to sit down and eat a meal while you’re there, you must at least get a sweet treat from one of the bakeries.

There probably isn’t a sign about it downtown, but I’m pretty sure there is a law against leaving Tarpon Springs without at least either a sponge or a piece of Baklava. Luckily for me, I bought both.

Debbie Flessner writes the Live Like a Tourist column for the Sun newspapers. You may contact her at dj@flessner.net.

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