What good is a roadside attraction if it can’t sit along the side of the road? That’s the problem Gibsonton, Fla. — better known as Freaktown USA — is facing.
The town that was once home to the Monkey Girl, the Alligator Skinned Man and Lobster Boy is trying to preserve the memory of its most famous giant, Al Tomaini, with a memorial featuring a replica of his colossal boot. He reportedly stood 8 feet 4 inches tall.
Carol Philips, a former circus worker and wolf trainer, is spearheading the effort as chairwoman of the Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton. The group wants the monument to be placed along Highway 41, just south of Tampa and off the Alafia River.
That’s where the giant and his wife, Jeanie the Half Girl (she measured 2 feet 6 inches), built the Giant’s Camp restaurant and fishing cabins in the 1950s. It’s also where a huge Tomaini boot sat atop a concrete slab and served as a memorial for decades, until its recent deterioration.
However, the group faces one giant problem: Hillsborough County has said the monument must be set 50 feet away from the highway because it’s been designated as an accessory structure on commercial property.
Generally, such accessory structures are trash bins or sheds that shouldn’t be thrust into public view.
This structure is anything but. It’s an 8-foot-4-inch granite base featuring a sculpted replica of Tomaini’s original boot and was designed by Lew Stamm, an artist from Sevierville, Tenn. One of the giant’s massive rings (which he sold as souvenirs) will also be installed in the monument. In all, it will stand 11 feet 1 inch.
“I think it’s a neat idea,” said Lori Boylan, a community planner for Hillsborough County, who expressed confidence that the structure will get its desired placement.
If so, it’ll keep Tomaini’s vast presence intact. Until his death at 50 in 1962, he couldn’t be missed by anyone. The Giant’s Camp kept his spirit alive until 2007, when the family sold the property and the camp was cleared away, with the exception of one restored cabin. Jeanie the Half Girl died in 1999, just weeks before turning 83.
The Tomainis’ granddaughter, Tina, was saddened to lose the Giant’s Camp but supports the memorial. “I want my grandparents to be remembered for who they were and what they did for Gibsonton,” she said. “They made Gibsonton.”
Philips began her quest for a new memorial after being approached by residents from nearby towns at a local community-building seminar. Until then, she hadn’t thought much of the big old boot.
“One of the men walked up to me and asked, ‘Are you from Gibsonton? I tell you what: You people need to do something about that boot. I just feel so bad every time I drive by and see what condition it’s in!'” she recalled. “A few days later, a couple of us went out to see the boot and were taken aback to see that, in reality, there was really nothing of the boot itself left.”
The concrete and the wire that helped keep the boot’s shape were still there, but nothing else. Shortly afterward, the concrete was gone too. A generator towed down the highway broke loose and ran into it. What remained was claimed by Tomaini’s daughter, Judy.
“[It was] a kind of landmark for show folks,” said Pete Kolozsy, who grew up in Gibsonton and now runs a giant snake and giant river rat show.
The Concerned Citizens have filed for a variance to allow an exception in the zoning law so the monument may be placed just 10 feet from the highway. A hearing will take place April 23, and the fate of Tomaini’s legacy will be decided by the land use hearing officer soon after.
Ironically, zoning laws are what brought sideshow and carnival workers to Gibsonton in the first place.
In the early 1920s, carnival concessionaires Eddie and Grace LeMay happened to stop for a rest at the Alafia River. The area wasn’t much more than a dirt road at the time, but the LeMays soon met a handful of welcoming locals and decided to stay. Word traveled, and soon other show folks began wintering in the hospitable town.
Land was cheap, and zoning laws allowing for “residential show business” made it convenient for trailers and carnival equipment.
In the late 1940s, the Tomainis joined the show folks and called Gibsonton home. The giant not only opened the Giant’s Camp but also founded the town’s first fire department and became its chief. In keeping with the character of the community, the police department was headed by a dwarf.
Before long, carnies and freaks not only wintered in Gibsonton; they retired there as well. Giants, little people, bearded ladies, fat men, fat ladies and other curious residents could stroll about, free of stares.