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Nicholas Toth

Florida Folklife asked our artists a series of questions to learn more about their traditions and how those traditions have impacted their lives and the lives of those around them. Take a look at the answers we got from Nicholas Toth below.Photo of Nick Toth


What folk tradition(s) or traditional art(s) do you practice?

I individually hand- craft fully functional sponge diving helmets made of copper and brass, following the traditional design elements that have remained the same for over 150 years.

How did you learn those traditions?

I learned my craft from my grandfather, Anthony Lerios, who emigrated to this country in 1913.

He was born in 1891 in Kalymnos, Greece and at the age of five his family moved to Istanbul, Turkey (always referred to as Constantinople in any of his conversations). Having grown up in this large metropolis, he became a highly educated and skilled master machinist and engineer. His skills as a craftsman and his ability to create or repair anything made of metal on a sponge boat made him integral to the success of the sponge fleet in Tarpon Springs, Florida.

At a very young age, I began going with my grandfather to his machine shop on the Anclote River. The “original” shop was a few feet from the Sarris boat yard, where I would watch the old masters building wooden sponge boats and fishing boats. I also spent a great deal of time observing my grandfather using the lathes, milling machine, torches, grinders, etc. As I got older, my grandfather would let me operate some of the machinery. When I was around ten years old, he would put my hands on the controls of our large lathe, then place his hands over mine, and turn the knobs and control wheels so I could feel what it was like to cut metal.

Over the years, during summer vacations, I would work with my grandfather. We would outfit new vessels and make repairs on the sponge boats, fishing boats, and shrimp trawlers. We also made all of the ancillary items necessary for sponge diving including dive weights, sponge hooks and of course, diving helmets. It was through this immersion of time with my grandfather and hands on experience that I began to acquire my own skills and eventually become a master of my craft.

Why is it important to maintain folk traditions?

Maintaining our folk traditions helps us to stay in touch with our own history and culture. These important links to our past compel us to appreciate the sacrifices of those that came before us. Traditional folk artists and craftsman provide a window into our past and help us recognize our own humanity. The diving helmets that my grandfather taught me to make have become an iconic symbol of our tradition of sponge diving in Tarpon Springs, FL.

How did you first get involved with the Florida Folklife Program?

I have been involved with the Florida Folklife Program since the early 1980’s. By the mid 80’s, my grandfather and I participated in the Master/Apprentice program and attended the Florida Folk Festival in White Springs, FL.

Photo of Nick Toth

What Florida Folklife Program projects have you participated in and/or what folklife awards have you received?

Florida Folk Heritage Award - Presented by the Florida Department of State, Division of Historical Resources, Florida Folklife Program, Tallahassee, FL - 2008.

National Heritage Fellowship – Presented by the National Endowment for the Arts, Washington D.C. – 2003

Florida Individual Artist Fellowship - Presented by Florida Division of Cultural Affairs, Tallahassee, FL - 2012 & 1998.

Florida Folk Festival, White Springs, Florida 1992 - Exhibit, demonstrations and participation in several recorded panel discussions.

Florida Folk Festival, White Springs, Florida 1987 - Maritime Folklife crafts demonstrations. Certificate of Recognition, Antonios Lerios and Nicholas Toth.

Museum of Florida History, Tallahassee, Florida - Permanent collection and display, 1986; this acquisition features the first diving helmet completed entirely by Nicholas Toth, as part of the Florida Folklife Apprenticeship Program in 1985-8

How has the Florida Folklife Program benefited you or what value does the program have?

Personally, the Florida Folklife Program provided my grandfather and I with the realization that our skills as craftsman and helmet makers was valued outside of the sponge industry. It was a great tribute to what I had learned from him and helped to capture the legacy of this unique craft.

It is so important to provide a platform that allows traditional artists and craftsman to showcase their skills and celebrate their culture and traditions. This window into the diverse cultures that are found throughout our state helps citizens learn about cultures and traditions that they otherwise would never know existed.

I have been very fortunate to have benefited greatly over several decades from the Florida Folklife Programs. The recognition and acknowledgement from my own home state helped provide the foundation for national recognition, including the 2003 National Heritage Fellowship presented by the National Endowment for the Arts.

How can the Florida Folklife Program better serve you?

I continue to be very grateful for the Florida Folklife Programs and hope that they will maintain full funding so current and future generations will continue to appreciate the many treasures of Florida’s varied folk traditions, cultures, artists and craftsman.