Forty years ago, in 1978, snapper boats were big business here. Below, Robert Ingle writes about the decline of the sponge industry. Presumably he had no idea of what would be in store for the snapper boats or the oystermen.
Our Chasing Shadows question this week, Does anyone know what became of the Madeline? If you can answer, please contact the Times at 653-8868 or Lois Swoboda at firstname.lastname@example.org
By Mary Donato
At twilight on St. George’s Island
Stenciled in the Western sky
Murals painted by an unseen hand,
That are pleasing to the eye.
Some have clouds with silver linings
Edged with pastel shades of blue:
Some of them are richly blended,
With a lovely golden hue.
Once I saw his masterpiece
It was a wondrous sight:
A brilliant star, a crescent moon,
And a ray of sunset light.
Islanders pay toll for holiday revelry
By Esther Suber
Too much holiday spirit, too many relatives, too many parties and too little sleep. It’s cough, cough, sniff, sniff and achoo!
But cheer up; we’ll all be back to normal soon.
With the holidays back of us, the St. George Island Civic Club is ready to begin a brand new busy year so please come to the meeting ay 8 p.m. January 18 at the St. George Island office of Leisure Properties.
Roundabout: Of all the Christmas presents we received the ones we treasure most are hand made by Ben and Marcus Bloodworth, the young sons of Mary and Ron.
Bill Squire has just returned from a month-long tour of the South Pacific where he visited such exciting places as Bora Bora, Tahiti, New Zealand and Australia.
My husband Beau and I spent the holidays in Knoxville, TN with our daughter Sally, son-in-law, Ken and two grandchildren, Kim and Bryn. As our daughter has done since she was a little girl, she woke us at dawn with her fa-la-la-las and Meeeery Christmas.
While driving home over the Smokey Mountains, we saw monstrous icicles and a thin layer of snow. As we edged into Georgia, it really began to snow and then it really began to snow and then rain, rain, rain all the way back to the island.
Shots fired at toll booth
Franklin County Sheriff Jack Taylor reported that the toll booth and building at the Bryant Patton Bridge was shot repeatedly early Jan. 2. Ronald Lee O’Neal, who had been charged earlier that night with running the booth without paying the toll, has been charged with the shooting. Two windows, a sign and an adding machine were damaged.
Sponge boat has long history
By Robert M. Ingle
Mediterranean influences are strong in this area, as has been noted. But the persuasion is not limited to people, it includes boats too.
An example was noted recently when an old boat used in sponge fishing, was noted on the ways at Apalachicola Enterprises. Its lines were classic right from Greece and it was being refurbished for use in the snapper fishing fleet.
Its name, the Madeline, not typical for this last kind of craft.
Most vessels built for the sponge industry were built in Tarpon Springs, long the center of sponge fishing in Florida. They were built by Greeks for others of that nationality who were always the mainstay of the harvesting effort and, quite naturally, bore names of Hellenistic origin.
When repairs are completed, the Madeline will join others of its kind in Carrabelle previously from Tarpon Springs that carry more typical names such as St. Nicholas and Panimitis.
The style of the Madeline is ancient, being basically unchanged for about 3,000-years. Old pottery and paintings from various parts of the Mediterranean going back to the dawn of history depict vessels not unlike the Madeline and others that ply the local waters. Boats of the same design are still used widely from the Near East to Gibraltar today.
The Greek influence did not come accidently to the snapper industry of our area. It came as a result of need during the sponge harvesting period.
The industry grew until, by 1900, it encompassed the west coast of the state from Key West to Apalachicola. The animals (and sponges are animals) were abundant, of high quality and in great demand. As the effort to bring them ashore increased, Greeks were brought in who were experienced sponge divers to strengthen the work force. Gradually, Tarpon Springs, centrally located in the sponge territory, became capital of the world for the product. It also became a famous center of Greek culture.
Shipbuilders were brought in and others trained to build the same ships that the immigrants had used in the old country. At one time, over 200 vessels of the type favored by the Greeks were in operation along the west coast of Florida.
Then, in the late 1030s a fungus-like disease hit all the sponges in this part of the world including the Bahamas. Production plummeted and fishermen were forced to enter other fields. At the same time, synthetic sponges began to replace the natural product on the market.
A few Greek fishermen refused to give up and a handful of boats continued to operate but the golden period was ended.
Many of the vessels that had previously been part of the once prosperous Tarpon Springs fleet were sold and were taken elsewhere to be used in other kinds of fishing. Those left are largely remnants of the old fleet, there having been only a few built after the industry declined.
Eventually, the sponge population began to come back and with the increase some of the fishing effort revived. In 1941, 20 new divers were brought from Greece and again in 1962; fifty more came in followed by still more in 1967.
But the boat building boom had become a thing of the past and most of the new men went to sea in craft that had been constructed earlier.
There is still a sponge industry in Tarpon Springs, but it is a different type than that of the 1930s. The reduced fleet still brings the product to the docks there but much of the demand is for uses not thought of 45 years ago. Many of the better specimens are sold as attractive containers for plants along with a few that serve more traditional markets such as cleaners for delicate machine parts, glazing of pottery and the printing trade.
The total catch in 1975 amounted to only 21,888 pounds with a value of $129,899 resulting in a price per pound at the dock of $6. It should be remembered that various middlemen add their usual mark-up between the producer and the final buyer. Usually, these additions result in a final price to the consumer of about three or four times the price paid to the fisherman. Accordingly, sponges come in at one of the highest prices per pound of any marine product.
Nevertheless labor is a problem. Diving for sponges is hard work and often carried out under difficult conditions. Life aboard a sponge boat is not an easy one so, despite influxes of new divers, more attractive employment lures many of the away from the underwater harvesting operation.
Tarpon Springs itself has changed. The sponge industry now depends more on tourists who come to see the unusual activity and take cruises on sponge boats than it does on the sponges alone. And the local people try hard to keep the boats still operative, tied up to the docks for atmosphere if they are not actually working offshore. The latter makes the acquisition of vessels like the Madeline difficult for outsiders. The men who bought the Madeline had to have persistence they would not have been able to bring her to this area. They tried to buy her over a period of time and although she was old, decaying and worm-eaten, were unable to affect the sale. Finally the man who owned her died and fast action resulted in a change of ownership.
The boat was then towed to Carrabelle where repairs were started, then taken to Apalachicola where the hull is being carefully restored.
Although she is owned by Raymond Williams it was his father, Ryne, who planned the purchase and now supervises repairs. Ryne is a well-known businessman in Carrabelle who has reduced his present ventures but still hopes to be engaged in some manner in the snapper fishing business with his son’s newly acquired boat.
The Madeline, built 49 years ago, has black cypress ribs and planking, a heart of pine keel and although time has seen deterioration, much of the original construction remains sound. Ryne Williams has already chosen his captain, a long-experienced snapper fisherman named “Tex” Spradling, also well-known in the area. “Tex” hopes to work reefs in the offshore waters of Franklin County in the summer and fish from Key West in the winter.