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By Melody Jameson
Gibsonton -- Some sixty years ago, a giant of a man and his diminutive wife meandered south on U.S. 41 from Tampa, crossed the Alafia River and spotted a small acreage that had “home” written invisibly but indelibly on it.
|Movin’ on to a new home after about 50 years of service at the Giant’s Camp in Gibsonton, one of the last of 25 cottages that once dotted the three-acre site was loaded up and trucked away last week. The small, frame cabins were key components of the camp developed by Al and Jeanie Tomaini, beginning in the late 1940s. Al Tomaini, of Italian heritage and, at eight feet, four inches in height, a genuine giant, operated the much-loved camp featuring home style cooking, good fishing and comfortable sleeping cabins, with his 2.5-foot-tall wife, Jeanie, after their retirement from the carnival show circuit. Two of the cabins were relocated to Camp Bayou on the Little Manatee River and the Giant’s Camp site, now owned by Mosaic, is being groomed as Gibsonton’s northern gateway complete with a memorial to the Tomainis.
Photo courtesy of Fred Jacobsen|
It was the late 1940s. Though still fresh in memory, WWII was in the history books and America was poised for a sweeping post-war boom.
The couple was Al and Jeanie Tomaini. At eight feet, four inches in height, a genuine giant, he was a part of the carnival show world as was Jeanie, born without legs and measuring two feet, 6 inches high. But traveling the show circuit, they figured, would not always be their routine. Al loved fishing; they talked of a place, their place, where others could come to rest serenely, eat well, fish happily.
And there it was. A little over three acres, a stone’s throw from the river but near that important arterial highway, an operating tavern as well as a house built on the property, in the long shadow of a mainstay employer, a phosphate processing plant on the opposite shore. It also was for sale.
This, in the recollection of local historians like Carol Philips, is how the Giant’s Camp, so aptly named, got its start.
|Like three lonely sentinels, these 1940s style sleeping cabins now are all that remain of the numerous structures that once comprised Gibsonton's Giant's Camp on U.S. 41, immediately south of the Alafia River bridge. The three acres that the late Al and Jeanie Tomaini developed after their retirement from the carnival show circuit as Americans took to the highways during the boom years following World War II eventually featured clusters of cabins, a bait shop along side a marina lagoon and a restaurant serving solid home style food to hungry travelers, truckers and locals. The site, now owned by Mosaic, is to be preserved in a park-like environment, including memorials to the Tomainis who actively supported Gibsonton as a community.
Melody Jameson Photo|
And now, six decades later, a cooperative effort involving the community that grew up around it as well as the phosphate mining and manufacturing company so close to it is focused on memorializing the couple and what they made.
Tomainis would purchase the site, come in off the road, and by 1949 were engaged in creating the camp that celebrated the passions they could share with locals and visitors from far and wide. Philips said this week. She is chairing the Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton committee working with representatives of Mosaic, which now owns the property.
Before they were done, Tomainis would carve out something for everyone. Catering to a newly mobilized America taking to its roads with gusto in shiny new automobiles, Giant’s Camp eventually would have 25 cabins to accommodate weary travelers. Sharing his devotion to the art and science of catching fish, Al would build a bait house near the marina lagoon he generated by getting a canal cut into the property from the river’s south shore. And, of course, there was the restaurant, serving up tasty, home cooked meals under Jeanie’s watchful eye from a kitchen, in a dining room fashioned from the former tavern.
Before long, Giant’s Camp was on the lips of locals and travelers alike. The place became a routine stop for truckers passing through and hankering for a taste of home, for newcomers to Florida’s Central West Coast looking for a comfortable bed or a little orientation, and, naturally, for Tomaini friends and friends of friends from the carnival show world, Philips recalled. The food was good, filling and hot, the cabins neat and perfect for overnights, the fishing frequently superb.
And, a big boot became a sort of Giant’s Camp logo, Philips added. Al worked tirelessly for the community that was Gibsonton and its environs, organizing and leading the volunteer fire department, founding the first chamber of commerce, making personal appearances, lending his great height any time it was useful in fund raising or inspiring a community effort. At some point, he acquired a gigantic rubber boot, symbolic of his size, which was permanently attached to a pedestal that reposed for years on the driveway leading to the cabins, she noted. At Halloween, youngsters from throughout the area came to scoop packages of candy from the boot.
Over time, though, the rubber boot – and more – disintegrated. Al died in 1962. Jeanie continued to operate the restaurant during subsequent years, but eventually it was leased out. Boats sank in the little marina lagoon, becoming derelicts. The cottages suffered the ravages of time. Al’s bait shop was razed. Jeanie passed on in the 1990s. Their house on the south end of the acreage was taken down. And the rubber boot was forever lost.
Today, Tomaini’s Giant’s Camp is in transition. Two of the last five cabins were loaded onto a flatbed truck last week and transported south to the north shore of the Little Manatee River, where they are slated to become part of the history and environmental learning center at Camp Bayou. Of the three remaining structures, two show signs of severe termite infestation and probably will be razed, according to Chris Smith, a Mosaic public relations manager.
But that last cottage has a promising future as centerpiece in the Giant’s Camp memorial. Mosaic plans to restore the cabin to its heyday appearance, Smith said, and, while it will not be open to tours, it will be a backdrop for those wishing pictures of what now is part of Gibsonton’s colorful lore. The phosphate company will maintain the site as a green, open space and keep up protective fencing, she added.
The company also is planning a “Welcome to Gibsonton” sign on the Property and sees the site as part of the community’s gateway entrance for those approaching from the north.
For its part, the Concerned Citizens’ committee is working on means of replicating the big boot and on signage explaining the memorial and its significance for those with long local memories, Philips said. They estimate the project cost at about $10,000 and are picking up donations to take bites out of an initial $5,000 goal. The objective, she summed up, is to have the memorial pretty well shaped by the end of the year.
© 2009 Melody Jameson
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