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SAMUEL PROCTOR ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM at
the University of Florida.
UNIVERSITY OF FLORIDA
ORAL HISTORY PROGRAM
Interviewee: Stephen Katzaras
Interviewer: Larry Odzak
February 27, 1993
O: Today is February 27, 1993 and I am fortunate to be with Mr. Stephen Katzaras and
Mrs. Fanny Katzaras at their business office and shop. The name of the business
is the Katzaras Sponge Company, on Pinellas Street in Tarpon Springs, Florida
[605-607 North Pinellas Avenue]. Mr. Katzaras, I really appreciate you allowing me
to talk with you today. I wanted to ask you how long ago did you get into the
K: Well, I came to Tarpon Springs in 1937.
O: Before the Second World War.
K: Yes, right before that and as soon as I came here, I started out working in the
sponge packing house, one of the biggest in town.
O: Did you have family in Tarpon Springs at that time?
K: My brother and his family. They had owned a sponge diving boat and he was one
of the pioneers who was involved in sponge diving here.
O: Is that right? So how long was he in Tarpon Springs?
K: Oh, he was in Tarpon Springs since 1920.
O: So he came here just after the First [World] War. You say he owned a sponge boat?
K: He owned a boat named Asterope, and he held on to that boat until the industry took
a dive, I believe, back in the 1950s.
O: Because of the blight?
K: Yes, when the blight killed the sponges and they were no longer able to make a
living. So he sold the boat and he got out of the sponge diving business.
O: Now, I know your name is Stephen, because I know your grandson is named after
you. What was your brother's name?
O: John, or loannis, lanni?
K: Yes, loannis.
O: Where did your family originate in Greece?
K: From the island of Symi in the Dodecanese Islands, off [the coast of] Turkey in the
Aegean Sea. Most of the people there make a living in fishing and sponging.
O: That is what I understood reading your friend Edwin Buxbaum's dissertation, that
most of the divers who came to Tarpon Springs were from the Dodecanese Islands.
K: Yes, from the Dodecanese, mainly from the islands of Symi, Kalymnos and Halki.
O: But your family is [from] Symi.
K: My family is from Symi.
O: When your brother first arrived in Tarpon, he must have found a good number of
Greeks already in Tarpon Springs.
K: Yes, because the Greeks started coming here from about 1904 and, of course, when
he came here, there were quite a few sponging boats [owned by Greeks] in the area
at that time.
O: Would you hazard a guess as to how many Greeks were in the community at that
K: In the 1920s?
O: Let us say in 1920.
K: In 1920, I would say there were every bit of 1500 Greeks here, maybe more.
O: Between 1500 and 2000?
K: Yes, I would say so. Because, when I came in 1937, Tarpon Springs was of course
a small town, but the majority of the population were Greek and I think they
[numbered] around 2500 people. Most of them were in the business of sponging and
O: Did your brother bring enough capital to buy the sponge boat right away, or did he
first work for somebody else and save money to buy the boat?
K: No, just like other people from the islands who came here, he first entered into a
partnership with others and then he saved some money. Of course, starting costs
[were high] just like in every other business. Used boats at that time cost, I
remember, $6,000 to $7,000, which was a lot of money. But my brother managed
it with the help of this gentleman [whose] name was Nicholas Arfaras, who was the
biggest sponge dealer in the world those days. I worked [with] Arfaras when I came
from Greece and my brother got him to help buy [my brother's] boat and they were
partners in sponge fishing.
O: I see. Did your brother, other than owning the boat, arrange for crews to be hired?
K: Yes, of course; if you owned a boat then you had to hire the people that you like,
good working people, and then you needed divers. How many divers you needed
depended on how deep you [would] dive; let us say you dive in the area of twelve
fathoms, that would be about 70 feet, if you dive in the area between 40 feet and 70
feet, you needed two divers. If you dive in the area of twelve to fifteen fathoms,
then you needed three or four divers.
O: So three or four divers if you went down 70 to 100 feet, approximately?
K: Yes, and if you go deeper, and some used to get sponges at depths as far as eighteen
and twenty fathoms, then they had five or six divers, because in such deep water the
diver could only stay down ten or fifteen minutes. But if you searched for sponge
in shallower water, just as my brother did, for example, he was diving between six
and twelve fathoms, so then they needed only two divers. He was diving himself; he
was both the captain and a diver, and [he hired] another diver.
0: I see. So your brother John was not only the owner of the boat, but he was also
O: Were he and the other divers going down wearing the diving equipment that one can
see now at the museum here in Tarpon Springs?
O: They used the round metal helmet and a rubber suit?
K: The hard hat was what they called the diving helmet, and in those days they had air
compressors that had to be run by hand, connected by a hose to the hard hat.
0: Were the compressors pumped by men standing on the deck of the boat?
K: Yes. Then later on, the compressor pumped by hand came to be run by the main
engine. You see, then you did not have a man going like this [right arm makes an
up and down pumping motion] all the time.
K: And the hose that will carry the air, the life line, was as long as 200 or 300 feet.
O: I see. So the diver could not only go down, but he could also move around at the
bottom of the sea.
K: Yes, the hose would be floating, so a diver would be able to move a lot. They
covered a lot of distance you see.
O: I understand that the crew chosen by the captain shared the catch in certain ways.
K: Yes. At the time I remember--we are talking about 1937 and beyond--the diver was
getting three shares, the captain with the boat was getting sometimes two and
sometimes three shares.
O: I see.
K: So in this case [with two divers] you had about seventeen or nineteen shares in total.
In other words, three shares for the boat, three shares for [each] diver, then two
shares for the deck man, two shares for the cook, two shares for the engineer and
two shares for the life line tender, another important man. The life line tender is
just like a telegraph system between the boat and the diver. You see, he also tended
a string, a very heavy string, that could even pull the diver in case of an emergency.
He is the one who got the signals [from the diver]. The signals were made by this
string to bring the sponges up, or to move and the diver is coming up, or if the diver
had any difficulty down there, they would pull him up.
0: So these are all signals that the diver gave by pulling on the string?
K: Yes, the diver signalled by pulling on it one time or two times, or he would pull
three times, four times, or fast [continuous] pulls, that was the telegraph system.
O: That is marvelous.
K: You did not read anything on this?
O: Well, yes I did, but it is different when you talk to somebody who knows about it
from personal experience. So this would be about five or six people, I guess, who
would be sharing the income from the total catch.
K: Six people would be sharing. Then, if you go deeper, you have sometimes, four
divers, three divers, five divers, more people sharing.
O: And each diver would be getting three shares no matter how deep he goes?
K: That is right. Then the boat will come in with, let us say, $20,000 worth of sponges.
They would sell them at the sponge exchange at the auction. And after they pay the
supplies, the rest of the money would be shared accordingly. So many shares, so
many thousand dollars left, you get so much a share.
O: Would this sharing system be something that was also done in the Dodecanese
K: No. In the Dodecanese Islands it was done differently. You see, in the first place
the whole sponging system in the Dodecanese Islands and [the one] in Tarpon
Springs worked in a different way. Here they were going out for fifteen to twenty-
O: Up to a month?
K: Up to a month, here. But the majority only stayed twenty or twenty-two days; then
they would come in for fresh supplies and rest and go back out again. In the
Mediterranean, in the Dodecanese, they used to leave about the end of April and
come back in October.
O: So the stretch in the Aegean or in the Mediterranean Sea was about six months.
K: Yes, about six months. In addition, of course, the crew was big. They used to have
two diving boats and a deposit boat. They called this a supply boat, the big one that
they used to sleep on and eat and where they stayed at night. Then in the morning,
the crew would get on the small diving boat and go to work. So they carried about
thirty people, who went on a longer expedition.
O: This must have been a much bigger boat than the sponging boats at Tarpon Springs?
K: Yes, it was. So the fact that they had to go away for six to eight months, made it
necessary to pay the men in advance.
O: Payment in advance?
K: Yes. Because if I were going [for such a long period] I had to leave money for my
family and I do not know if I am coming back. When they had to go that deep the
danger is great. You know they sometimes went with ten divers and brought back
half of them, the rest of them they had buried, because it was very deep, up to fifty
fathoms, and the divers were in danger all the time. The long life line might get
tangled or cut.
O: But the suit itself would be similar to the one worn here, except, I guess, for the
longer life line.
K: The same except for the longer life line.
O: So the captain would be the one hiring the crew and the divers.
K: The captain would be hiring the crew and of course each captain sometimes had to
pay an advance. Now, for example, in my brother's boat he was supplying the
money. Here they did not pay in advance, but still one had to give the men a little
bit. In other words you can give them $200 or $300 spending money until the boat
O: And this is an advance on the earnings from this trip?
K: Yes, but in Greece, you say, "How much are you going to give me for the trip?" You
say, "I want so much for the trip as a diver," or "I want so much as a crew member"
and you got it practically in advance. So if the boat did not have luck, the captain
and the supply house would be stuck, because they did not have enough money to
cover, you see.
O: Yes, there would be a net loss. But then since the trips were shorter and crews were
smaller here, a [different] arrangement was then originated?
K: Here it was different. Here we had, as I said, a short trip, fifteen to twenty-five days,
and secondly the men were going out there to work twenty days and come back. If
we wanted money, we sold the sponges, we split, and went back out again.
O: So you did not have these long stretches, six months or eight months to take care of
the family, while you were out at sea.
K: That was the difference between fishing here and fishing in the Dodecanese.
O: And did this system start here in Tarpon with the Greeks or did it already exist?
K: It began here, and it came about after John Cocoris came down. Before this time
there were some Cubans and Key West people fishing sponges with a long pole with
O: [They were called] the "hookers."
K: The hookers. The [deepest] they could go with the pole was about three to four feet
to about ten to twelve feet.
O: Only as long as the pole was.
K: As long as the pole was. And you had to be very skilled, because to hook a sponge
from twelve feet you really had to watch down there, or else you could tear it. You
see, if you tore the sponge you would destroy it. So John Cocoris saw that, he saw
that there were sponges involved and in fact he knew a lot about them. Mr. Cocoris
came from the Peloponnesus, from Leonidion, and there was much sponge fishing
in the nearby Aegean. I forgot to mention that sponges were not only produced in
Dodecanese waters, but also around the islands of Aegina and Hydra.
O: Waters just east and near the mainland.
K: Yes, in the western Aegean waters, and we had some people here from these islands
and from the nearby mainland. So Mr. Cocoris knew about sponges, he knew about
sponge fishing, because Aegina and especially Hydra are very close to his Leonidion.
So he came here and saw that they were working with old methods. He brought in
a diving boat, a small one, and the equipment, to try the Greek method of diving for
sponges over here. And that is how the industry began [and developed in Tarpon
Springs]. Then the Greeks heard [about] it, and started to assemble here from all
over the country, where they were working here and there in the steel mills and
factories in the Midwest and in New York and what have you.
O: Down here in Tarpon?
K: Yes, especially if you were from the islands, and you knew about sponging, and heard
up there that the familiar method of sponging was going on in Tarpon Springs.
O: So that was the time, you think, when the system originated to share the catch.
K: Yes, evidently they thought that this was the best way to do it, that we would go in
shares. This way you worked and you got paid and I [the owner of the boat and
equipment] did not get stuck.
O: And also, it depended on your good luck, how much you found.
K: Yes. Well, then again, you also had the good boats and the less fortunate boats.
Now my brother's boat was a good one. When I arrived here there were about, I
would say, eighty diving boats, and about fifty hookers. That was big; the industry
was then very, very big.
O: This was in about the 1937, 1938 period?
K: Yes. And out of the eighty diving boats, I would say ten or fifteen were the most
progressive ones. They had the best divers, the best captains. Word about a good
captain was that if he goes out he will bring in good results.
0: Was it because these captains knew where to find sponge?
K: It was just like going hunting. If you were a good hunter, you bring in the quail, if
you were not and I was, then you bring one and I bring ten. Well, that was the same
thing here. So my brother was among the ten or fifteen very good captains. The
good crew would always go after the good captain, because he [the crewman] knew
he was going to get a good share. Not only was I going to work in your boat, but
I knew I was going to get paid.
O: The share system then operated from 1904 or 1905 until the sponges deteriorated?
K: Well, during my lifetime they deteriorated a few times, not only one time.
O: I see.
K: But the worst time was back in 1939, when we had a big industry, a very big industry
and a very respected industry in the area in those days. Then, you know, Tampa was
a small city, Clearwater was a very small place, and St. Petersburg also. Tarpon
Springs was thriving because they were producing $1,500,000 [worth of sponges]. In
those days, $1,500,000 was like $10,000,000 or $15,000,000 today, you see, and
therefore it was a respected industry. So in 1939, when we had the first blight and
sponges got destroyed, then the Greek people--at that time numbering about 2,500
people, as I said--started leaving.
O: To go to other places to work?
K: Yes. And I left too in 1940 and I went to New York.
O: I see.
K: Yes. And, I came back at the end of 1944, after I had been drafted and released
from the service. I also got married in New York. I returned with my wife Fanny
now; we came down here and started up the business again. I was working here
in the sponge business and I was working also in New York with sponges.
O: I see. Was New York the receiver of sponges from various places, such as Tarpon?
K: Yes. In those days the wholesalers were [located] in the cities. I mean both
wholesalers and distributors were in the big cities. So a lot of them were in New
York and they were also [located] in Chicago and Philadelphia, and in Detroit and
Cleveland. In all of those cities there were big distributors, and they employed a lot
of people. They would get their sponges from here, process them, bleach them,
separate them, put them in cellophane if they had to, and sell them to different
industries. Our job here was to get the sponges from the captain and at that first
stage the sponges were smelly and dirty, let us put it that way.
O: Fresh from the water.
K: Yes. We would clean up the coral and the rock and cut off the excess trimmings and
put them in shape. I will show you how this is done, in the back, when we get
through. Then we packed the sponge in bales and shipped it to these wholesale
distributors. So while I was in New York, I was working with a wholesale distributor
O: I see. Then at the wholesale places, where the remainder of the processing work was
completed, sponge was then, as Mrs. Katzaras said, shipped out, and there was a lot
of European trade?
K: Well, that is happening today.
O: But not in the 1940s?
K: At that time, this trade was nonexistent, because while the Europeans used much
more sponge than we did here, they had also a big supply in the Mediterranean, so
the Europeans did not have to bother with us.
O: They could buy from Greece directly?
K: Right, they had a lot of their own sponge. Sometimes they used to ship here too,
because they had such a big production there in Europe.
O: I see. What do you think caused less use of sponge, of natural sponge, in the United
K: The scarcity and the price. You see, when something gets a little scarce, the price
goes up. And when the price goes up, then the scientists will start developing
something to replace it. Now I am talking about those days when you asked a
dollar for a sponge of about that size [about twelve to fifteen inches in diameter].
K: All right, Dupont started out first, making those cellulose sponges, and produced
them for five cents or ten cents, at the cost of perhaps ten cents a piece. And they
are still around, you can see them in department stores.
O: This is the synthetic stuff?
K: Yes. Now because the United States at that time had a population of about, let us
say, 200,000,000 people, you see, they would consume a lot of sponges. There were
never enough natural sponges that we produced here to supply 200,000,000 people.
And we have not even started to cover the demand from industries. The industrial
demand for sponge in the United States was so great that it alone kept the prices
for natural sponge high.
O: So the price of natural sponge remained high?
K: Yes, the price of natural sponge. The synthetic sponge was manufactured,
practically, not for the professional cleaner, not for the industry, but for the
housewife. But what we lost in [natural sponge trade for the] house wife, we could
not have produced in natural sponge in the first place. We did not have a cheap
sponge to compete with the synthetics, but the industrial demand is still here and
industry is crying out loud for sponges. And even today, now, we do not have
enough of it.
O: So independent of the synthetic sponge production, did the demand for natural
sponges increase or decrease at different times over the years?
K: No, not exactly. Remember, when natural sponges were, like I said, in demand for
the household, a natural sponge of decent size would cost the person at the hardware
store, or at the Five and Ten Cent store in those days, about $1.00 or $1.50. And
even $1.00 at that time was too much money to pay for such a sponge, when you
could put in front of the housewife a cellulose sponge for twenty or twenty-five cents.
We did not have enough cheap sponges, and we did not ever need any cheap
sponges to keep the demand by the housewife. The demand for natural sponge did
not change when the synthetics came in. This was my experience, and I am here
now fifty-five years.
K: You see, in my experience, I have never had a problem selling the sponges.
O: So the problem was really getting them, not selling them.
K: Yes. It is the lack of supply; the supply is short. You cannot satisfy the demand.
The industry today commands high prices, we have now very high prices on sponges.
With these high prices we produce about $2,000,000 worth of natural sponge between
here [Tarpon Springs] and Key West. $2,000,000 is nothing, a drop in the bucket,
when the demand exists for $10,000,000, you see. So while the excess has to be
imported, the price goes up.
O: That is because we do not have sponges that we can harvest?
K: No, it is because we do not have the crews and the captains, we do not have the
people to harvest them. You see, it is a difficult job and times have changed. The
people who came from Greece sixty or seventy years ago were hard-working people.
They came here and worked like all of the immigrants. They came here to work
twelve hours a day. I was putting in ten hours a day when I came here for one
dollar. A dollar a day, when I came to this country; ten cents an hour, and that
was work that did not mean playing around. There were no coffee breaks those
O: You did not watch the clock?
K: No, you went home when the boss blew the whistle. If he forgot to blow the whistle
at five o'clock and he blew it a six o'clock you just stayed there.
O: You did not walk out of a job.
K: No, no, because you would lose your job; where would you go?
O: The depression was still with us in 1938.
K: Sure. Jobs were very scarce. Secondly, you appreciated a job. Today it is an
altogether different story. Today you can work for a person and you do not
appreciate him as a boss. Those days I was getting one dollar a day, but I respected
the man, I said, "Thank you very much," and "God bless you for keeping you alive
and keeping the place up so that I can get this one dollar." You see why I mean it
is different today.
O: The other thing that I wanted to ask about is that when you arrived in 1937, you say
the sponge industry was still thriving, and there were about eighty boats active in
K: Eighty diving boats, and about forty or fifty hook boats.
O: Were the Greeks involved in both the diving and the hooking?
K: No, not exclusively Greeks; we had about eighty diving boats and I would say we had
about six or seven diving boats manned by American boys.
O: I see. The rest were all Greeks?
K: Greeks and others. We had blacks as crew members, and of course, Greek captains
were also taking American divers, and the American divers learned to speak Greek
with Greek crews. Blacks also learned to speak Greek, used to speak it when they
were part of the crew.
0: That is something. Did you find quite a few blacks in Tarpon who were drawn to
the sponge industry?
K: Yes, of course, we had a lot of them working in the sponge industry.
O: If blacks were hired by the captain as crew members or as divers, would they also
partake in the same share system as everybody else?
K: The same share system, there was no difference because they were of a different
O: And you say they learned to speak Greek?
K: They used to speak Greek, they heard it all day long and then they learned, you
know, just as other Greeks learned to speak a little bit of English to get along.
O: The Greeks who made a living in contact with Americans, you mean?
K: Right, so in the same way, blacks had to make a living. For them, the only way to
make it was to learn Greek. Because the Greek sponge boat crews did not know
how to speak English.
O: They were expected to learn it just as they had to learn the job, I guess.
K: So the answer to your previous question comes from this, when the old Greeks were
here, at the time that I was here, those who worked on the boats did not speak
English, or very few of them did, and they came here, like I said, to work and they
were working hard most every day of the year.
Now the reason for the answer that you asked me before, about production today,
today's fishermen expect money without producing, and without hard work. They
go out there for only three or four days and they come in and they expect $5,000.
O: It does not work that way?
K: No, they go for weekends, they have a speed boat, and they work somewhere else.
They go out on Saturday and Sunday and come back Sunday night. They bring in
sponges, and they expect you to pay them $600 or $700 because they want $350 a
day per man. Today it is different, it is not like it used to be. Today we have small
unorganized boats, husband and wife teams sometimes; they go out there in the
morning and come back in the afternoon or in the evening. They come mostly from
the nearby towns like New Port Richey, Hudson, Aripeka, you know, some of those
towns going up towards Gainesville. They also come from Cedar Key, and places
like that. They go out there, pick up a hundred sponges, bring [them] in and they
can get three or four dollars a sponge right off the boat; that is $400 in two days.
O: So it pays for them, but the industry itself does not have those who still want to work
hard and produce lots of sponge?
K: The boats are not organized. The only organized boats we have here in Tarpon
Springs are in Greek hands, but there are not many, [there are] maybe about five,
O: So five or six boats are still going out for two or three weeks at a time? Like they
K: They are going out and coming in, yes.
O: Has the diving equipment changed much?
K: Yes, they do not use the hard hat anymore, they use a mask.
O: And the tanks?
K: They carry one tank and they go down, and they maneuver easily because they have
a rubber suit and that is all. Just a rubber suit and the mask. They do not carry any
helmet, they do not carry the heavy shoes that they had before. Did you know they
had shoes that weighed ten pounds each?
O: The weight brought them to the bottom?
O: So there are still some Greeks involved in the sponge business, actually making a
regular living from it?
K: Yes, there are still quite of few of those and quite a few of the other small weekend
boats that I told you about.
O: The "mom and pop" sponge divers?
K: The mom and pop weekend operations. They go all over the course, from here
[Tarpon Springs] up to Cedar Key.
O: You mentioned that the sponge exchange does not operate any longer. Let us take
the Greeks who are still going out regularly for sponge--how do they manage to sell
their catch now?
K: Well, we sold the sponge exchange, and I can tell you because I was also a
stockholder in the sponge exchange and an officer in the corporation. We had no
[sponge] production from, I would say, 1960 to about 1975.
O: Almost fifteen years?
K: Yes, and the sponge exchange was getting run down and we had no money to keep
it up, because we were not operating.
O: No auctions were going on?
K: No, there was some buying and selling. But now the sponge exchange was a very
important visiting place for tourists. More people hung around in the sponge
exchange than worked there, one or two times somebody got hurt and we had to pay
damages; you know how that is, today. So then I said, "Before we lose it to
somebody, before somebody gets hurt [again] and we have to pay [damages]--and
$500,000 seems like nothing today--we better get rid of it." So we got rid of the
Now when a boat brings in a load of sponges and wants to sell it, there are only
about four or five buyers [left]. So what he [the captain] has to do is to make only
five calls and say I have so many sponges and I want to auction them tomorrow
morning at 9:00 or 10:00 down at the sponge dock. So the buyers go down to the
sponge dock and buy them there. Some other times, if the weather is bad, they all
go to a warehouse, and instead on the sponge dock, we have an auction at that
warehouse, or just outside the warehouse. But most of the time they [the sellers] will
come in trucks and sell them to you. Now this is the new system; this system has
been in existence since the sponge exchange was sold.
O: But up to about 1960 then, the sponge exchange was operating as it was for, say, fifty
years before that?
K: Yes, but not on the same big scale. As I said, we used to auction off in those days
over $1,500,000, up to $2,000,000 worth of sponge down at the sponge exchange. But
after the years, let us say, after 1955, 1960 to 1975, I do not think we were auctioning
any more than $300,000 or $400,000 worth, and that is why we did not collect enough
money to keep up the sponge exchange.
O: Not enough to maintain the exchange facility itself.
K: So production was very low. Then, five or six years ago, a blight killed the sponges
in the Mediterranean area, which had the biggest production market in the world
during the past. I told you that they produced a lot, but also they consumed a lot
[of natural sponge] in Europe. So when they lost the Mediterranean production, and
it is still not back, the [European] buyers came to Tarpon Springs, to buy sponge
from us. This is why I told you the prices are now astronomical and this is why we
do not have nearly enough supply, because the demand is so great.
O: And the situation of big demand, small supply will continue?
K: The very big demand will continue for sure.
O: So up to about 1960, the sponge boats were operating under the same labor system
of sharing the catch.
O: And now, with the new diving equipment and more modern mechanics, do they still
operate the same way?
K: Yes they operate the same way.
O: Is that right? So those five or six crews and captains still share the catch?
K: Yes, they still share.
O: And they still stay out two to three to four weeks?
K: Not for four weeks. They go out there and stay about fifteen days.
O: Only about two weeks or so.
K: Two weeks and then they come back.
O: Of course, their boats are speedier now, too.
K: Yes, and this is an organized boat that will do that. The others do not stay out as
long; they are out for only two, three, or four days at most.
O: Well, I would like to ask you also about your family back home, on the Island of
Symi. Do you know if they were engaged in sponging for a long time or just during
K: Well, my oldest brother could dive up until four years, no, up until two years ago.
He was sometimes diving until he was ninety-two.
O: And what is his name?
K: Emmanuel. He was the oldest; he died at the age of 92, two years ago. He was
always in the sponge production. I mean he had a boat, and he used to go down to
Africa. You know, the boats from the islands would go down to Africa, search for
sponge on the African course.
O: The North African course?
K: Right, on the North African course, and also between the islands and in the Cyprus
area, there were sponges in these areas too. They used to sail; in those days they
had no engines and they used to sail that distance. That is why I told you it was a
six-month trip. He was always in the sponge world.
But beyond that, I mean going back in the family, I do not remember any one of my
uncles being in the sponge business. I think they were in the shoe business or
merchandising and things like that. But in my generation of the family, it was my
oldest brother in Greece and the other brother here, and I, who were in the natural
O: John or lanni and?
K: John and Manolis.
O: Now, you said John came to America in 1920?
K: It was 1920.
O: Just after the First World War.
O: And before the immigration laws changed?
K: Well, how he came was very interesting, I can tell you.
O: Please, yes.
K: You see, a lot of people who have heard this story told me I ought to write a book
about it. When my brother came, you could not immigrate into this country easily.
You know that. So what he did was this: from the Island of Symi he went to France.
He stayed in France I believe a year or two. Then he got onto a ship and came to
Cuba, as a merchant seaman. He came to Cuba and stayed in Cuba a few months,
because he heard that from Cuba he could come to the United States with the
[Cuban] fishing fleet.
O: A fishing boat would take him close enough?
K: Then they had schooners. You know the schooner is a big wooden ship with sails
and the Cubans used to come to the coast of Florida to fish in those days. So he
got onto one of those schooners as a crew member, but he paid the captain to let
him off in the United States. So they came here, just about five miles outside of
O: Oh, they came all the way past Key West and up this coast?
K: Yes, yes, to fish this whole area. Then the captain said, "John, I cannot take you
[any closer], we have no port here." We are now talking about how it was back in
the 1920s. Even the sponge fleet was anchored outside, off shore from Tarpon
Springs, not here in the area where they come in and out today. The [Anclote] river
was [dredged and made] deep enough only later, and the boats came in later. But
at this time they all used to anchor outside of Tarpon Springs, about two miles, three
miles from where they are anchored now. So then John said, "Where are you going
to let me off?" The captain said, "I cannot let you off anywhere [on shore], because
my schooner draws so many feet."
O: He needed the depth of water to operate?
K: Yes, and the only way one could get to the United States was that one had to be
thrown overboard. So that is what he had to do. That was the only way, that was
it. So John jumped over the boat [railing] and he swam over to where the sponge
fleet was operating, around the Anclote Keys, in the open area. So there everybody
was Greek of course, they all had moved here from Symi, from Halki, from
Kalymnos. John said, "That schooner dropped me off and I swam here. If you know
anyone from my island, please take me there, at least they can help me to get a job
and stay here." So the Greek sponge fishermen took him from there, and they
brought him into some old Simian house up here to Tarpon Springs. The place was
a few blocks from here.
O: Near the [St. Nicholas] church, on Hibiscus Street?
K: They hired him there for a while; he used to go out only to work and went back to
stay there. He was not in circulation too much, so the immigration people did not
know anything for about a year or two, you see, or maybe even three years. After
that, somehow he managed to get the first papers and then he became an American
O: So he did manage to become a naturalized American citizen?
K: Yes, but he did not go through the standard immigration places, like New York or
New Orleans and such, but he had to jump from a Cuban schooner.
O: That is interesting, because most of these immigrants came through Ellis Island.
K: But not John, he came from a schooner.
O: Did you come through Ellis Island and New York?
K: No, when I came in 1937, Ellis Island was closed. I think they closed it in 1933 or
1934, and I came in 1937, so my ship, an ocean liner, anchored at a dock directly in
New York City.
O: Still in New York, though?
K: Yes, yes, still through New York City.
O: It seemed to be the big port for incoming immigrants.
K: Oh, everybody was coming there, all had to go to New York.
O: Except John who just jumped.
K: He jumped overboard and came over here and he was lucky enough that he landed
safe and that somebody picked him up, you see.
O: But when the sponge fishing fleet could not come any closer, as you say, than
perhaps three miles or so offshore, were the smaller boats used then to transport the
sponges back and forth?
K: No, they [the fleet] could get to shore at Baillie's Bluff, from there they had horse-
drawn vehicles and they would load the sponges at Baillie's Bluff and bring them in
here [to Tarpon Springs], to sell. It would be about two miles between Baillie's Bluff
and the river down here.
O: Was there a dock at Baillie's Bluff where the boats could dock and anchor?
K: There was a dock. There were some pictures in one of those publications that
showed Baillie's Bluff from those days and the sponge boats, I cannot remember just
now which book that was.
O: Was the book about the 1920s?
K: No, before that, about 1910, something like that.
O: Ah, so still during Cocoris's days
K: Yes, yes.
O: You know that John Cocoris finally ended up in Jacksonville. I found a 1939
interview with John Cocoris and at that time, he and his wife and a couple of boys
were living in Jacksonville; he had retired, the boys were working at that time.
K: Yes, in Jacksonville. Yes, I know Cocoris was living in Jacksonville, but I do not
believe he is still alive. I met him, you know.
O: It was interesting to read part of the interview, because he was laughing and telling
stories from his sponge diving days in Tarpon [Springs]. He said at one time they
had trouble with the hookers from Key West, and there was much fighting between
the Greeks on the sponge diving, sponge fishing vessels, and Key West guys on the
sponge hooking boats, and they had to call in the Coast Guard.
K: Yes, well, you see the Key West people did not like the Greeks from Tarpon Springs
with their diving suits, because they said the Greeks were stealing their sponges; men
from Key West thought the Gulf water around the Keys was theirs. Then, because
of these Key West hookers, there was a law passed by the county or the state, I
guess, which said that no diver outfitted with a diving suit should be allowed to dive
in the waters so and so far from the Keys. Now, there were far fewer sponges way
out there in the Gulf, and you had more sponges closer to the Keys. In fact there
were a lot of sponges there [close to the Keys] and there were not enough hooking
boats to get them. The Greeks, as I told you, had a big fleet in Tarpon Springs,
about eighty diving boats and forty hooking boats that fished all the areas for sponge,
so they moved to new areas too. They used to go down to the Keys and dive there,
because this was a very large area. There was a distance of close to 100 miles
between Key West and the other islands next to the mainland, you see.
K: So it was a big area to work for sponge, big enough for everybody.
O: A good sponge growing area.
K: But anyway, if they caught the Greeks there, the sheriff would arrest them. So they
arrested [the crew of] one of the boats one time and they put the Greek men in jail
and the Key West people set fire to the sponge boat.
O: To the sponge diving boat?
K: There were a couple of films made in reference to that. I have seen the films, and
sometimes they still play them on television.
O: The films are about Greek spongers?
K: Yes, one is called Sixteen Fathoms Deep, and if you ever hear of it, try to see it. Is
was a good film, it was produced here in Tarpon Springs, at Key West, and in the
O: The "sixteen fathoms" refers to the depth to which they were diving, I suppose?
K: Yes, that was Sixteen Fathoms Deep. And the other one was The Twelve Mile Reef;
that also was filmed in Tarpon Springs, Key West and the Bahamas.
0: I will look for them. Now, one thing that I have not quite understood is this: the
Greeks were running, as we know, the vast majority of the diving boats and they
were also engaged in hooking operations as well.
K: Yes, the diving and the hooking, they were doing both.
0: Now, whether they were diving or hooking, did the same system of labor and sharing
the catch apply?
K: Yes, they used the same system. The only difference was that in a diving boat, you
had a lot more expenses, because it is an expensive operation. The hooking boat
does not have as many expenses, because all you need is a boat and a couple of
smaller boats and the men who were supposed to go and look for the sponges. So
there is not much expense, you do not even have to have a motor. But on a diving
boat you had to have a motor, you see, because you are following the diver; you had
to have the motor to follow the man.
O: Then the hooking boats had a smaller crew?
K: Yes. The hookers were going out with two small boats, the supply boat and two
small boats, that is how they worked. Then you need two men for one small boat
and two for the other, four men, and one man on the supply ship, all together five
O: Two men to each small boat and one stays on the supply ship. How do the two-
men crews operate?
K: One man rows and the other man looks [at the ocean floor] with a glass [glass
bottom bucket] and sees [what is] down there. If he sees the sponge, he picks up
the hook and gets it, but they have to work fast, you know.
O: As you said, they had to be very skilled to hook the sponge and not to tear it.
K: Oh yes, these guys can pick up sponge fast. I went one time to hook sponges and
I could never get it off of the bottom; I tore it up into pieces, you see. But these
guys, they know, they know how to get it and it comes up just like cutting apples.
O: So, the five people, for example, on the two small boats and the supply boat, would
they also have shares similar to the diving boat crew? Would it still be three shares
for a captain and three shares for the hooker?
K: No, I think now they have a different system. Now, they probably charge two shares
for the boat, I understand, instead of three. Two shares for the boat and then one,
one, and one [for the man on the supply boat, the man rowing and the man hooking]
O: I see.
K: Or, [going back to the diving boat] if the captain wanted to make it a little bit more
attractive for the diver, he gave the diver an extra quarter [share]. The captain
would say, "Well I will give you an extra quarter from mine or an extra half, to make
it attractive," if he was a good diver.
O: It is interesting that all these years the share system still operates in Tarpon Springs.
Then, from what we know, the original Key West hookers were using a different
payment system. Or do we even know what kind of system they were using?
K: No, they had the same system. They used to hook sponges, but they were not as
perfect as ours; you could see that when they brought us their sponges up here.
They used to bring sponges to sell up here and sometimes some of the dealers from
here used to go down [to Key West] and buy theirs, in the same way, at auctions.
But [on] their sponges you could see the hook marks. When you graded the sponges
you graded by the quality, by how open the hook marks were; and if you tore up the
sponge it would be in a different category and you were losing value. They were not
as skilled [in harvesting sponges] as these men here.
O: But were they also using the same share system as the men here?
K: The Key West people, I believe, used the same share system. Some people acted as
suppliers, used to get the boat equipped and told a couple of people, "If you want
to work, go out there and work, and if you bring so much we share, otherwise I pay
you so much." I think they used to do that down at the Keys those days; I am
talking about the old days.
O: So it was a little different.
K: They used to work a little different.
O: See, what I am trying to find out is whether the sharing system, as it used to be on
the boats, was originated by the Greeks who came here, or did they already find the
system [in place]?
K: No, you see, this [shares] system evidently was originated by the Greeks, for this
particular reason: if we go out there for fifteen days and the weather turns bad and
we have to come in, and if I already paid you, let us say, $300 advance money, and
now [because of the bad weather] we came back and we did not get a lot of sponges.
So what [could] happen was that [a member of] the crew [asked], "I need another
$300." Now, you already gave him $300 and he was asking for another $300. If
you did not give him the next $300.00 you might not see him again. He may [have
decided to] go with another boat. So then he has got you so you have to give him
another advance. In other words, now you are gambling [that the rest of the trip will
be good]. Now, if you go out after five days, after the weather settles, you work, and
you do not produce, and you came back, then you get stuck [with the loss].
But they invented the share system for that reason, to be fair to everybody and [so
that] nobody got stuck. [With the share system the captain would say], "Well, I can
give you maybe a little bit if you need some advance money, but I am not going to
pay you like the captain in Greece pays the crew, and give you all your money for
six months [in advance]."
O: That is the total time [for one whole trip in the Mediterranean].
K: But, [for this trip in the Mediterranean], he [the captain] bought you; you are already
sold to him for $10,000, or for $5,000 and you are going into the ship and you will
not see your house again for six months. You are going to be in that ship and it
takes you three hundred miles away from your home, down to Africa.
0: Or over to Cyprus?
K: Yes, and there is no way for you to escape, you sold your body to him for the next
six months. So he had to pay. But here you could go out there and work, let us say,
100 or 200 miles north of Tarpon Springs. Then bad winds [might come], the
weather [might] turn bad; then the ships used to [anchor] at Cedar Key and at
Steinhatchee, that is way up there [northern part of Florida's Gulf Coast]. Now, the
crewman could call his wife and say "come and get me." Yes, it happened, I know
it did, [and the crewman would think] "Why should I be in Steinhatchee or Cedar
Key, when I can come home [to Tarpon Springs, which is] only two hours away." So
the wife would come out there and get her husband or the brother, bring him down
here. Now the captain was out of money, so who was going to pay the damages?
So that is why they got the shares.
O: As you said, it was fair for everybody.
K: You lost, you lost dollars, you cannot run.
O: Then everybody lost out, or everybody gained, depending on the situation.
K: So they found that was a fair share system, because that was the way it worked.
Fifteen, twenty days, twenty-five days, thirty days, they come back. In Greece though,
I have to get you in my boat and you are there for the duration. So there is no
O: There was never, I think, any attempt [made] to unionize during the old days.
K: The sponge fishing industry? No. There was an attempt to unionize the packing
houses, the working people, but they did not succeed, they never unionized either.
O: So would you say that was because they must have been satisfied with the
K: I guess so, and because people in those days, like I said, were humble.
K: They wanted to work and they were satisfied, and when you paid them they were
saying, "Thank you." Today, you give them a $2,000 check and you do not hear
"Thank you" many times. But they will tell you, you know, "You did not give me
O: Not enough thanks, not enough good will.
K: [Today, sponge sellers might say] "I should have gotten more money, but I have no
more time to go around [and get different bids]," you see.
O: Well, I really appreciate the time you spent with me today. Thank you very much.