Tarpon Springs man reflects on family's sponging past ahead of 90th birthday

Harry Klimis' family history is the Tarpon Springs story. Tarpon Springs is the oldest city in Pinellas County.

Harry Klimis’ family history is the Tarpon Springs story. Tarpon Springs is the oldest incorporated city in Pinellas County.

“This is a beautiful place to live, and I think that the fact that we have a minority population of Greeks that were spongers and we have a great deal of fisherman and guys that love the sea and Tarpon, has made this town a little bit different and that difference gives it that quality,” Klimis said.

Klimis, who turns 90 in June, has seen the city grow like one of its famous sponges. He and his daughter Athena run a store, Tarpon Sponge, Inc., on the site of the original Sponge Exchange. “This place just reeks of history,” he said.

Harry knows things are changing. “This town has been discovered, and I’m afraid it’s going to grow too fast to suit me, but that’s the way it is,” he said.

Harry’s father, Emmanuel Klimis, arrived in 1910 from Kalymnos, Greece to work as a sponge hooker. Emmanuel’s brother, Michael, was already there, the captain of a boat named Olga.

Emmanuel purchased his boat, the Anthoyla, in 1928.

The Tarpon Springs sponge industry dates to the 1880s.

By 1890, the Cheney Sponge Company in Tarpon Springs sold almost $1 million worth of sponges, according to SpongeDocks.net.

To boost the industry, companies recruited divers like Emanuel Klimis from Greece. By 1905 more than 500 Greek sponge divers worked on 50 boats in Tarpon. These early residents gave life to today’s city. Tarpon Springs today has a higher percentage of Greek Americans than any other city in the U.S.

The Great Depression sank many sponge boat owners. Emmanuel lost his boat to creditors and moved his family to Indiana to work in Gary’s steel mills. But the sea is in the Klimis’ bones, and they returned. Emmanuel purchased another boat, the Leonidas, in 1943.

During his teenage years, Harry sponged with his father. After enlisting in the United States Navy during World War II, he became a pharmacist.

“None of us ended up on the sponge boat. We love the sea but it’s a hard life,” he said. “When I come down here it reminds me of my youth.”

Harry met his wife, Effe, who is also 89 years old, and moved to Spartanburg, South Carolina and then to Tampa. But Tarpon called him back in 1970. “The kids were growing up, and I thought they’d have a better crack at it living in a small town,” Harry said.

Harry’s 23-year-old grandson doesn’t know if he’ll stay in Tarpon but is grateful for the upbringing it gave him.
“I consider myself very fortunate that I’ve been able to grow up here because there’s a great community and so you don’t lose touch with sense of family or ancestry,” said Henry Coburn, who will attend law school at Stetson University in the fall.

Family history is abundant in Mike and Kostas Koursiotis’ restaurant, Mama Maria’s. Maria is their mother – and she cooks in the restaurant every day. Two of their sisters own restaurants in Tarpon Springs, as well.

Maria Koursiotis turned to cooking after her husband John became afflicted with the bends, or decompression sickness, which affects divers. John was forced to retire in 1978.

John and Maria are also from Kalymnos. John moved to America in 1959 to work as a diver on a sponge boat. He passed away in 1997.

“It was a great life. It was all based around the ocean and sponging and our Greek church, our faith,” Mike said.

It’s the culture, community and ties to the water that have kept the Koursiotis family in Tarpon Springs, Mike said. “It’s our common denominator that we all share and cherish,” he explained.

Living in Tarpon lets Mike feel close to his family history. “It brings back memories of me as a child, him taking me to his boat during the day in the afternoon where they were moored up to wash sponge with him and then taking me to the field docks to fuel the boat up and then taking me for a ride out into the Gulf,” he said.

Mike thinks about those memories when he’s with his own three boys and his wife.

“Last weekend I was out on my boat and I just looked around in awe and thought to myself this is where my father worked; this is what he did for a living,” Mike said. “I’m just so blessed to be able to remain in the area and experience that and see what my father saw, see through my eyes what my father saw out on the ocean sponging.”

Melding history with progress

Today the Tarpon Springs business community is working to make it a key Florida destination. City councilwoman Rea Sieber moved from St. Petersburg to work as a guidance counselor at Tarpon Springs High School 10 years ago.

Sieber moved to the United States at age 20. She was born in Constantinople, and her family later moved to Athens. “This was almost like my home again,” she said of Tarpon.

In 2009, during the financial crisis, Sieber retired from the high school. She saw vacant businesses and decided to open a store, Rea Sunshine. She later added Wine at the Docks. Before becoming a commissioner, she served as president of the merchant’s association.

“It’s become an amazing community,” Sieber said about business in Tarpon. “It’s changed a lot. It’s continuing to grow. We have a lot more development coming.”

“I care about Tarpon. I care about it being the best little town.”

Sieber says the one issue with the city is a shortage of hotel beds. She wants to change that because she thinks Tarpon Springs has a lot to offer. Sieber pointed to the city’s parks, beaches and water sports.

“Sunset Beach is the best place to go watch a sunset. Bring a cooler and your kids,” she added.

© 2017 WTSP-TV


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