When brought to shore, sponges are a uniform dark gray and have to be bleached for the market. The four varieties of sponges taken in the Gulf are classified by the shape, color, texture and toughness of the skeletal structure. The most valuable are the “sheep’s wool” sponges, then the “yellows,” third the so-called “grass sponges” and of least value the “wire” or “velvet” sponges. The size of a sponge depends upon its age, the diameter increasing about one inch a year.
The Tarpon Springs sponge fleet comprises nearly 150 boats, and about 500 sponge divers. Most of the boats are built on the Greek model, ranging from 25 to 45 feet in length. They seem to be frail craft for long voyages, but they frequently remain out in the Gulf, fifty to eighty miles from land, for weeks at a time before they complete the cargo. The deeper the waters and the farther from land the sponges are taken, the more valuable they are.
Everything about the sponge fisheries is on a cooperative basis. The divers and crews of the sponge boats share with their owners and officers in the proceeds of each voyage. When the sponge market is high and brisk, rival boat owners bid against each other for the services of divers known to be especially expert, frequently offering bonuses in addition to their shares. In the Spring of 1937, when the sponge market was more active than it ever had been, with auction prices at record highs, bonuses to individual divers of as high as $500 for a single voyage were reported.
All sponges, on being brought ashore, are sorted for quality and size, threaded on strong cords 58 inches long, the ends of which are tied together, making a circular wreath of sponges.
All of the catch is stored in a cooperative warehouse maintained by the fishermen, in the courtyard of which the sponge auctions are held on designated Tuesdays and Fridays. Most of the regular buyers maintain their own warehouses in Tarpon Springs where the cleaning and trimming of the sponges for the market are done. A single morning’s sales at the sponge auction may total $50,000. The total annual sales run close to $1,000,000.
The presence in Tarpon Springs of this large colony of Greeks, numbering between 1,000 and 1,500 with their families, lends an exotic character to the section of the city in which they make their homes, have their church, their own shops and social centers. They are a clannish people, living very much to themselves, except as they have business relations with the English-speaking population. Being shrewd traders, like all Greeks, these Mediterranean inhabitants of Tarpon Springs have risen to the opportunity which the annual tourist influx offers them by opening up curio, souvenir and coffee shops in which a thriving trade is done, particularly in types of merchandise which reflect the Byzantine arts and crafts of the Levant. Many of the women and some of the men of the Greek quarter wear their native costumes, which adds a touch of picturesque color to the city.
In the Greek Orthodox church at Tarpon Springs, where worship is conducted by the oldest of all Christian rituals, centers the gorgeous and impressive ceremony which draws thousands of tourists every year on January 6th, the Feast of the Epiphany. This is the ceremony observed nowhere else in America but annually in the churches of Greece, commemorating the Baptism of Christ, the Descent of the Holy Spirit and the Recovery of the Cross by the Emperor Constantine, founder of the Eastern Orthodox Church. The Metropolitan Archbishop for North America, accompanied by other high prelates of the church and often by numerous prominent Greek laymen, comes to Tarpon Springs to conduct the ceremonies.
Early on the morning of Epiphany worshippers congregate at the church, where masses are said until noon. Then the Archbishop, clad in the gorgeous gold-embroidered robes of his office, wearing a jewelled golden crown and bearing in his right hand a golden sceptre, heads a procession in which march the minor prelates, also in full sacerdotal regalia, who are usually joined by a delegation of priests of the Protestant Episcopal Church, likewise fully vestmented. Altar boys carrying banners and gilded insignia of the church clear the way for the procession through the streets of the town to the bayou where the final ceremony is to be held, while the Byzantine choir, chanting the ancient hymns of the Eastern Church, follow the pontifical group, with the secular visitors bringing up the rear. At the water’s edge the Gospel is first read in Greek by the Archbishop, then in English by an interpreter. The reading finished, a white dove, signifying the Holy Spirit, is released, and as it flies out over the waters the Archbishop casts a golden cross into the bayou, symbolizing the Baptism of Christ. The young sponge divers, stripped for the plunge, have been assembled awaiting this moment. As the cross touches the water they plunge after it. One of them seizes it and brings it to the surface. Proudly he climbs ashore and kneels humbly to receive the Archbishop’s blessing. He and his boat, the sponge fishers believe, will be especially favored until next Epiphany.
Another unique attraction of Tarpon Springs is the collection of ten religious paintings by the late George Inness, Jr., famous son of a famous artist father, which hang in the Prot estant Episcopal Church of the Good Shepherd and are on exhibition daily. The elder Inness, widely acclaimed as America’s greatest landscape painter of the nineteenth century, “discovered” Tarpon Springs half a century ago, and immortalized it in his famous painting, “The Home of the Heron.” His son, who died in 1936, maintained his studio here until his death. Among the prized pictures in many museums and private collections are scenes in and about Tarpon Springs painted by the Innesses, father and son.
Leaving the Pinellas peninsula we follow the Gulf Coast northward through New Port Richey before we swing eastward to come into the highway leading north from Tampa to connect with the Gulf Coast Highway, the new, broad major artery which follows the curve of the Gulf to the western extremity of the state at Pensacola. In this southerly section the road does not follow the contours of the shoreline as closely as it does after it swings westward from Apalachicola. An interesting spot, reached by a detour of a couple of miles, is the “Dude Ranch” at Moon Lake. There is no good reason why the West should have a monopoly of the kind of outdoor recreation which consists in roughing it in tailor-made clothes, with most of the roughness sand-papered off by the knowledge that the guide will get you back to the ranch house and a hot supper before dark. The dude ranch, Florida style, is patterned after the up-to-date Western institutions of its kind, with subtropical embellishments and improvements. It is wild country, forest and jungle and lakes and streams, with an enormous dancing pavilion and an up-to-date orchestra in the middle of it. At Brooksville, where we turn into the main highway, is the estate of Raymond Robbins, famed among horticulturists as the experiment station where many improved agricultural and horticultural methods have been developed. The property was given to the state of Florida by Mr. Robbins and is now one of the important outposts of the State College of Agriculture’s experimental staff.
At Inverness, a few miles north of Brooksville, it is worth while to make a detour over a side road toward the Gulf if only for the sake of seeing Homasassa Springs, which supplies the flow of crystal clear water of the Homasassa River, a broad nine-mile stream winding among wooded islands to the Gulf, in which fresh water fish and those native to salt water mingle, all clearly visible to the eye of the fisherman. Homasassa Springs is another spot in Florida of the many which deserve the name of “Fisherman’s Paradise.” One of the ambitious real estate developments which was halted by the collapse of 1926 left behind it a delightful little hotel in the woods, which now, under the ownership and management of “Dazzy” Vance, famous former pitcher of the Brooklyn Dodgers, is a sportsmen’s rendezvous the year around.
Along the highways and byways in this section travelers since 1935 have seen numerous painted signs, informing them that the Federal Resettlement Administration was engaged in activities on the particular tract behind the sign. Few people in the nearby towns had even the vaguest idea of what the Resettlement Administration was doing or contemplated doing. In response to a request by the authors for information about these activities, a concise summary of the recent agricultural history of Florida was supplied by the Federal authorities. It presents a picture of conditions which affected principally the Negro farmers and the lowest class of “crackers” or “poor whites.” These constitute but a small minority in the lower Florida peninsula; there are more of them in the older settled regions of North and West Florida. The rehabilitation of impoverished farmers is the sole concern of the Resettlement Administration, and the extent of impairment of Florida’s agricultural developments, as set down in the official summary, is over-emphasized. So far as the general picture is concerned it is nevertheless worth quoting if only to emphasize the point which has been made earlier in these pages, that to reap the riches which Florida farming yields to its successful pursuers calls for capital resources, intelligence, adaptability and industry to a higher degree than do ordinary agricultural operations elsewhere. The hazards of the Florida agriculturist are admittedly high, but the reward for success is in proportion to the risk.
The Resettlement Administration’s summary of the factors which led to the distressed condition of many Florida farmers must be read as having particular application to the unfor tunates who were lacking in one or all of those qualifications for successful farming. The summary follows:
“During the years of 1924 and 1925 Florida was experiencing one of the biggest real estate `booms’ in its history. It was at this time that farm land prices rose and labor became so scarce that large numbers of farmers felt they would make more money by selling their farms for speculation and working in the small towns where labor was very scarce. This continued until the fall of 1925. The farmers lost their farm holdings and the economic balance of their farms was completely reversed.
“In the fall of 1925 the bottom fell out, or the `boom’ broke, so to speak, and since work ceased within the cities the farmers were forced to return to their farms. Most of them had been subdivided by some real estate promoter or had been sold several times, thus causing the farmers considerable delay and expense in obtaining their farms again and replacing the crops and fruit trees.
“This adjustment was getting well under way by 1927, but in the fall of that year Florida received another hardship, which was the hurricane. This did the greatest damage that had ever been done within the state. Farm homes, crops, fruit trees, and other types of development were demolished, or put out of commission for several months. In the early fall of the next year the 1928 hurricane followed in the same tracks. It was not quite so strong, but enough to ruin the crops and destroy a large number of houses, barns, etc.
“This about depleted the farmers of all their operating capital, and most of them had gone in debt heavily to rebuild and repair their homes. The banks were the main source of credit for rebuilding the state agricultural disaster. Furthering their hardships was the failure of the banks. This began in 1928, and, as we all know, many were closed by the end of 1929. The banks had been the lifesavers for the agricultural crisis but now there were no hopes from them.
“The prospects for all crops were increased by the beginning of the next year, but then came the fruit fly which swept all of South Florida and parts of North Florida. In the coun ties where the fruit fly was found it was necessary that all fruit and vegetables be destroyed. This again unbalanced farm economics for that year.
“It again left many farmers depleted of cash and there were no banks or people willing to loan, or had the money to loan, to refinance these farmers.
“Conditions were again headed towards normal when Florida suffered the most severe freeze it had had since 1896. This was in the winter of 1931-32. Crops were completely killed to the lowest point of the state and for most farmers this was the last straw. Following this freeze was another, not quite so severe but enough to throw hundreds of other farmers out of business.
“The above factors, among many other general economic factors, led to Florida’s lowest point in agricultural production and to thousands of farmers being left without operating credit, and, in many cases, without homes.”
For the rehabilitation of the unfortunate farm families, chiefly Negroes, who were hardest hit by the factors recited, Resettlement Administration has done effective work, reaching some 7,000 beneficiaries who have been put on their financial feet by loans of Federal funds, taught improved methods of farming and of home-making, tumble-down cabins have been replaced by neat bungalows with modern conveniences and these people have got a new start on the road toward whatever independence they are able to achieve and maintain.
Before proceeding northward, we swing eastward again to Dade City, seat of Pasco County, an important cross-roads through which almost all motorists pass on the way to Tampa or St. Petersburg from Jacksonville and Northeast Florida. The town takes its name from Major Dade, U. S. A., famed in Florida annals as the victim of an Indian massacre. In the Seminole war of 1835 Major Dade and his command of 110 men were ambushed by the Indians and all but three were slaughtered, a few miles north of the little city which now bears his name.
At the scene of the Dade massacre, near Bushnell, county seat of Sumter County, is the 80-acre Dade Memorial Park, established and maintained by the state. A concrete replica of the fort of pine logs which the troops built before their last gallant stand, and a bronze statue of an American soldier of 1835 stand in a beautiful grove of moss-hung live-oaks.
The town of Bushnell, although the seat of a county in which profits of $500 to $1,000 an acre are often realized by its prosperous truck farmers, has fewer than 500 popula tion. It has, however, one unique industry, peculiarly Floridian. That is the largest factory engaged in drying and baling Spanish moss for sale to upholsterers. A hundred tons of this hairlike fiber are collected by trucks every month, from points as far as 200 miles away, and ten carloads a month are shipped to northern furniture factories.