By Melody Jameson
GIBSONTON-“Large lots”…“Easy terms”… “Something New Under the Sun”…
Sounds like a contemporary real estate sales pitch for any oncoming subdivision here. But, actually, those teasers are a century old and not exactly for this community. They’re really lifted from brochures touting not Gibsonton, but the communities that preceded it – the settlements of Gardenville and Adamsville in a developer’s dream named “The Florida Garden Lands.”
Nichols Point on the north side of the Alafia River was still undeveloped but earmarked for change in 1924. The first stages of the phosphate processing plant that would grow with the surrounding communities soon would rise on the vacant land beyond this little dock hosting the early automobile. The point would have been visible from Gardenville’s beloved white sand beach to the south near the mouth of what then was dubbed the Roosevelt River. (Photo Courtesy of Cargill Fertilizer)
Before there was what now is known locally as “Gibtown,” before any semblance of the Tamiami Trail, before phosphate processing plants at the mouth of the Alafia, there was white sand beach where the Roosevelt River met Tampa Bay, cozy waterfront cabins along the shoreline, spontaneous geyser-like water gushers offering limitless supply, an open-air dance pavilion quite literally over Tampa Bay, and more.
These were just some of the amenities that W.D. Davis, president and treasurer of the Davis Mercantile Company in Tampa, promised all comers to the eastern shore of Upper Tampa Bay in 1910. He subdivided, he built and they came.
A Different Beginning
Although James Gibson, Sr., and his family from Greenville, Alabama, began homesteading about 150 acres near the Alafia and Tampa Bay in 1884, the community that bears his name was not formalized until 1923. Davis, however, had his “garden lands” recorded in Hillsborough’s plat books a full 13 years earlier. And he lost no time marketing his paradise.
The map defining this early 20th century development indicates the subdivision stretched from what now is Gibsonton Drive on the north along the Hillsboro Bay shoreline to what now is Big Bend Road at the southern end. To the north was the Alafia River and meandering through the upper portions of his “garden lands” was what he designated the Roosevelt River. Today, it’s known as Bullfrog Creek.
Lots varied in size but 14,000 square feet was not unusual and many of them bordered the bay. Like any sharp businessman dealing in real property, Davis understood that second only to location, location, location is price, price, price. Bayfront lots ranged from a low of $225 to a high of $600, the latter being an exceptionally large parcel on the bay situated between the two rivers.
Davis also did not overlook the appeal of terms to the turn-of-the-century settler. In his brochure he states lots under $125 require only $5 in cash and $3 per month, without interest. Higher priced parcels carry a $10 down payment, at $5 per month. However, a 15 percent discount applied for cash within 30 days. Corner lots on the bay, of course, came at a premium - $25 more.
Moreover, Davis made full use of the “you can’t lose” hook. Any purchaser who experiences a “misfortune” preventing fulfillment of the contract before the property is paid for, he promised, would receive another lot in exchange for the monies paid. Plus, he went on to guarantee a 25 percent increase in value, flowing wells and fertile soils to each buyer.
The developer’s approach proved irresistible. Among the first to arrive were the Adams family and the Kushmers. Named for the former, the Adamsville settlement is located just south of Gardenville, which, in turn, is south of Gibsonton. The two families also soon were united by the marriage of the son of one to a daughter of the other.
These families quickly were followed by others – Tanners, Buzbees, Lewises – to mention only a few. They began to acquire pieces of “the garden lands” and by 1918 the Gardenville population reached 125 hardy souls, according to “Hillborough Communities” produced by the Tampa Bay History Center.
In 1952, when Georgia Johnson proudly posed with her son, Charlie, in his high school graduation gown, the background on the south side of Symmes Road in Gardenville still was open land. Today it is the site of one of a number of new housing developments. (Photo courtesy of Jeannie and Pete Johnson)
Highlights in a Hard Life
But life in the “garden lands” was not a bed of roses. Local historian Jeanie Johnson, a direct descendant of the Tanner family, observes that the daily routine in Gardenville during the teens and twenties of the last century was not easy. Residents, most of them making a living through crops planted in the responsive soil or fishing the abundant waters of the eastern bay, still were dealing with an untamed land.
Transportation was by foot or by horse and buggy over what was nothing more than rutted tracks, she points out. Tampa, the closest city, was a long trip by boat and primitive roadways. Small wildlife such as raccoons, opossums and foxes were plentiful, but so were bobcats, panthers, snakes and alligators, plus not a few stinging insects. Summer months brought heat and mosquitos into tin-roofed, frame housing without screened windows. Neither indoor plumbing, nor electrical power nor any appliance save wood-burning stoves graced those early dwellings.
Yet, the growing little communities enjoyed an active social life centered on the amenities Davis provided and promoted in his sales materials. He rarely lost an opportunity to underscore the free flowing artesian wells that spewed mineralized, sulphur-fragrant water spontaneously skyward and he took full advantage of his Roosevelt River. The pristine little waterway formed a mouth at the bay and adjacent to that mouth a natural white sand beach reaching northward toward the Alafia. Here Davis erected a half dozen cabins, a clubhouse and a large, screened dance pavilion at the end of a pier into the bay.
Oral histories compiled in recent years with the help of the first settlers’ descendants indicate that during the teens and twenties the farmers and fishermen of “the garden lands” spent much of their free time on their “Gardenville Beach,” Johnson says, many times walking through cultivated fields or palmetto scrub from their Gardenville and Adamsville homes to reach it.
Fresh Fish for the Supper Table were as close as the creek in the Gardenville of 1930. “Oma” Ekker and her grandson, Hugo, descendants of an early family, show off what has been called an “immature Tarpon” but what actually may be a nice Snook that they took from Bullfrog Creek one sunny day. (Photo courtesy of Jeanie Ekker Johnson)
They swam in the unsullied surf, picnicked and camped on the beach, square danced on the pavilion dance floor. Here romances were sparked that would lead to future marriages, the stresses of a homesteader’s life were momentarily forgotten, energetic youngsters harmlessly let off steam under multiple pairs of eyes as visiting, spooning and spinning prevailed.
In addition, the world of the locals
was expanded as settlers from surrounding communities traveled to Gardenville to spend vacations in cabins on their beach, Johnson adds.
The “Florida Garden Lands” remained rural for many years after W.D. Davis enticed settlers to his new subdivision along the eastern shore of Hillsboro Bay. This 1930s photo of an unpaved Nundy Road also shows the Ekker grove bordering it, part of the local agriculture that supported many families. Others in Gardenville and Adamsville lived by the net. (Photo Courtesy of Jeanie Ekker Johnson)
A Changing Era
By mid-point in the twenties, however, the signs of changes to come were surfacing. The pavilion had burned – some believe due to arson. And, in 1921 a hurricane coming up Florida’s west coast wreaked havoc on the beach. In ’23, the first of the phosphate processing companies, U.S. Exports, acquired property on the north shore of the Alafia as it opened onto the bay.
Late in the decade, aro
und 1928, the pavilion and cabins were rebuilt, according to recollections recorded by Johnson’s mother, Marie Tanner Ekker. More storms, though, buffeted the area and the stock market crash of ’29 affected the fortunes of some.
Members of the Lewis family had taken up permanent residence on the beach. And, subsequently, as the Great Depression deepened in the 1930s, Davis sold the beach property to the phosphate company, stipulating that Lewises could remain as long as they wished. They were the last to leave Gardenville’s beloved beach – and for many a most memorable site.
An era ended when, in the early ‘40s during WW II, Johnson’s parents, Marie and Alfred Ekker, purchased five of the cabins plus the dance hall for $100 and used the lumber to build the home in which she was raised on the south shore of Bullfrog Creek, Davis’ Roosevelt River. She and her husband, Pete Johnson, still reside in the updated house on the Gardenville acreage cleared by her father.
And today, nearly a hundred years later, other developers are closing in. They tout an amenable climate, proximity of an interstate, their version of enticing terms. What they cannot offer is a white sand beach or waterfront dancing or geysers of free water.