One last stand in a transient place
By BEN MONTGOMERY
Published May 11, 2007
The giant found this place. He pulled off the Tamiami Trail and planted his size 22s on the south bank of the Alafia River in the early 1940s and laid claim to the location coveted in carnivals across the land: the first spot on the right, where everyone spends their money.
So Giant's Camp came to be, a few small cabins, a restaurant and a bait shop. Word spread though American midways. Al and Jeanie Tomaini, the 8-foot-4 giant and his cartwheeling half-girl who was born without legs, had founded a carnival sanctuary, a place to kick back with kindred spirits for the off season.
A huge rubber boot was planted out front, Gibsonton's welcome sign, barking silently to Florida's tourists.
Step right up, folks. You won't be sorry.
So Gibsonton came to be, a town around Giant's Camp, a Mecca for those invested in entertainment, with elephants and carnival rides and wintering freaks.
Stories were swapped. Books were written. A movie was made.
Then the giant died in 1962. Then his wife followed in 1999. Then his restaurant closed last year, thanks to high taxes and slow business, and things started to feel different here in Gibsonton.
The only thing left of the giant's boot is the sole.
- - -
Judy Tomaini Rock can't bring herself to go back.
"I get really upset over it, " she said. "I'll never go back."
She grew up here. The daughter of Al and Jeanie Tomaini says the performers who frequented her family's place made up "a big, giant dysfunctional family." The Human Blockhead. The Fat Lady. The Monkey Girl. The Alligator-Skinned Boy.
The great impresario Ward Hall, still touring the country with his sideshow, tells a story about Giant's Camp. In the early 1950s, he says, there were 75 professional oddities living in Gibsonton. And each November, when the carnival season was over, they'd get together at Giant's Camp, one of a few stops along U.S. 41 between Tampa and Sarasota, to catch up. The conversations dragged past dark.
And sometimes, late at night, unsuspecting travelers would stop in. You get the picture.
But that has changed over the years. And as the founders died, it felt like the family was falling apart.
"One by one they started dying off and drifting apart, " Rock said. "It was like our life was slipping away from us a piece at a time."
And without Giant's Camp, what's left of Gibsonton? The old founder's club on U.S. 41 is now a thrift store. New homes sprout between trailers. The lone barber in town, Bridget McDonald, has noticed fewer carny heads in her chair. "All of it ended, " Rock said. "It isn't like it used to be."
Giant's Camp was permanent in a transient place, the cornerstone of a town that could seemingly be packed up and relocated with 24 hours and some sweat.
In 1961, Al Tomaini and his family took a vacation to Alaska. The giant knew a man who promised to fly him to a fishing camp in the mountains. But he couldn't fit in the plane, so the family turned back and the giant slept most of the trip. Every time the driver stopped for gas, Rock recalled, the giant woke up.
"Don't stop, " he would say. "I want to go home."
The first spot on the right.
"It was always home to a lot of people, " Rock said. "And when in doubt, when something happens, you go home."
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Giant's Camp is listed on Hillsborough County's historical resources inventory, but it isn't protected. That means alterations to the buildings wouldn't need approval by the historical resources board. That means the new owner could knock the place down without hesitation.
Sheila McClernan-Edenfield, of Signature Realty, said she has received a number of phone calls from people interested in the 3.18-acre property, which is listed for $2.5-million.
The challenge in selling the place, she said, is that it doesn't have county sewer service. Though it sits on the bank of the Alafia River, it's separated from the water by a strip of private property.
"I just hope that whoever buys that spot is someone who has vision, " she said. "It's a landmark."
Rock and her family want to protect Giant's Camp the best they can. Rock said her goal is to see the place become some sort of park dedicated to the memory of her mother and father. But tough financial times may call for drastic measures.
Her grandson, once billed as the youngest sword swallower, is in jail.
Ben Montgomery can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 813 661-2443.
[Last modified May 10, 2007, 07:50:18]
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