The Feb. 23, 1913, edition of the Washington Evening Star reported the cultivation of sponges in the warm, shallow waters of Biscayne Bay, the waters surrounding Sugarloaf Key and Key West, and Anclote Key, located offshore of the west coast’s Tarpon Springs.

 “The various methods are as follows: ‘seed’ sponges are cut into small pieces, and, after having been attached by wiring or spindle to circular or triangular cement blocks, are dropped or lowered (depending upon the depth) to rest on the ocean bottom, where they remain for a year or two, until they reach a proper size for commercial purposes. They are then taken by the hook, when new cuttings are attached and the cement blocks let down again.”

Farming sponges and harvesting the fruits of the labor as if they were Key limes or pineapples made perfect sense. Sponging had grown into a big business. Before 1849, the American sponge market was primarily satisfied by products harvested from the Mediterranean Sea. In 1849, however, sponges culled from local waters were taken to New York and tested on the open market. As it turned out, the sponges harvested from the Florida Keys were equal to those from overseas waters.

Back in Key West, sponges were auctioned off on the docks at 3 p.m. daily. Sponges were graded for size and quality before the day’s auctions began, and size made a difference.  Medium-sized sponges were more desirable than those considered too big or too small. By 1890, as many as 300 sponge ships were operating out of Key West, with 2,000 men employed in the field. Before the turn of the century, the Monroe County sponge industry generated as much as $1 million annually. 

Key West resident Jeremy Fogarty was one of the early pioneers experimenting with sponge propagation. He was both a sponge buyer and a sponge packer. Fogarty understood the money to be made in sponging and began experimenting with their cultivation in the Lower Keys. Commodore Ralph Munroe, who lived in a small Miami community bordering Biscayne Bay, also experimented with growing sponges. His “fields” were in the shallow waters surrounding the Northern Keys.

Munroe’s efforts demonstrated better success. His sponges had a 75% survival rate and doubled in size in six months. Both men, however, suffered from the same big problem – poachers. To thwart the sponge bandits’ efforts, Munroe and Fogarty joined forces and attempted to get an area of Biscayne Bay set aside that government agencies could protect. The bill was on its way to passing through the senate when it was discovered that the senator who introduced the bill had a financial interest in the project. 

The bill failed to pass, and without government support to help keep the poachers from stealing their sponges, Munroe and Fogarty read the writing on the wall and gave up.

Another Key Wester, Dr. J. Vinning Harris, stepped into the shoes left empty by Fogarty and Munroe. Harris graduated from the University of Mississippi medical school in 1859. During the Civil War, Harris worked as an assistant surgeon in the Confederate Army and Navy. After the war, Harris moved to Key West, where he became a prominent citizen. He continued working as a doctor but also worked as a customs collector and served as the school superintendent for Monroe County.

The doctor also owned Sugarloaf Key — well, all of it except for what was described as its southern shore. On the island, he built a large house. In 1897, the Florida State Legislature passed a bill that Fogarty and Munroe must have envied. The bill made it possible for landowners to plant sponges in the shallow waters adjacent to their property and have those waters be eligible for government protection. Also, in 1897, Harris began experimenting with the propagation of sponges in the warm, shallow waters offshore of his Sugarloaf Key property. Two years later, the bill was rescinded. However, it was determined that if protections had been afforded a sponge field while the law was still valid, those sponge fields remained protected areas.

Harris’ work attracted the attention of Dr. H. F. Moore, the head of the United States Bureau of Fisheries, who, like Harris, was interested in farm-raising sponges. Circa 1901, Harris abandoned his sponges and allowed Moore to move into his house and operate his experiments from the Sugarloaf Key property. With government support and funding, Moore spent several years developing the techniques necessary to make commercial sponge farming a feasible operation.

Moore’s technique used concrete disks with a hole in the middle that allowed the sponge to be attached by wiring. The concrete disks were prepared on Harris’ Sugarloaf Key property. The sponges, bound to the disks, were then “planted” in the shallows offshore of Sugarloaf Key and monitored. 

Though slow growing, by 1908, Moore had determined, to his own satisfaction, that commercial sponge farming was possible as long as certain guidelines were followed. The sponges could not be planted where freshwater or freshwater runoff might affect them, and they should not be planted in sandy areas. Lastly, they should be protected from poachers.

Next week, part 2 will explore the rise and fall of the Sugarloaf Keys community of Chase and the Florida Keys Sponge and Fruit Company.

Brad Bertelli is an author, speaker, Florida Keys historian, and Honorary Conch who has been writing about the local history for two decades. Brad has called the Florida Keys home since 2001. He is the author of eight books, including The Florida Keys Skunk Ape Files, a book of historical fiction that blends two of his favorite subjects, the local history and Florida’s Bigfoot, the Skunk Ape. His latest book, Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli, Volume 1, shares fascinating glimpses into the rich and sometimes surprising histories of the Florida Keys. To satisfy your daily history fix, join his Facebook group Florida Keys History with Brad Bertelli.