2008 Florida Folk Heritage Award
Florida is the only state in which natural sponges are harvested. Tarpon Springs became a world center for this commercial activity, attracting sponge divers from the Dodecanese islands of Kalymnos, Halki, and Symi in Greece. Antonios Lerios, whose father emigrated to Tarpon Springs from Kalymnos in 1905, became a primary equipment supplier for the sponge boats. He created a one-piece diving helmet of spun copper, with redesigned windows, an air valve, and a breastplate. Nicholas Toth, Lerios's grandson, decided after he finished college that he should learn helmet making and carry on the family tradition. When Lerios died at the age of 100 in 1992, Toth was the sole inheritor of this tradition. Toth has continued to make innovations on his grandfather's designs. While he receives orders from working divers around the world, his helmets are also appreciated for their remarkable beauty and are sought by collectors and museums. In 2004, Toth received the prestigious National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. His work has been included in the touring exhibition Florida Folklife: Traditional Arts in Contemporary Florida, the book Just Above the Water: Florida Folk Art, and his workshop was featured on National Geographic Explorer.