Gibsonton, Fla., an unincorporated town in Hillsborough County, became famous as a circus sideshow wintering town. Twenty miles south of Tampa, it looks like any other small town: It has a library, a post office and a truck stop. But drive further and you might find a house with a huge Ferris wheel in the front yard, three full-grown tigers asleep in the shade or a sign advertising magic tricks. Once upon a time the town’s police chief was a dwarf, and the fire chief, a giant.
There are a couple of different stories about which of the sideshow “freaks” from Ringling Brothers Circus first set down seasonal roots in what was known as “Gibtown.” A documentary stated that it was Eddie and Grace LaMay, who ran one of the best carnival concessions. The couple stopped by the Alfalfa River in the late 1920s to fish and relax, the story goes; and after catching a few fish, some locals came over.
The couple was sure they’d be run off. Instead, they were greeted warmly. Good fishing and friendly neighbors were enough to convince them to stay.
Word quickly spread. Next came Al and Jeanie Tomaini: Al was the “Giant Man” at 8 feet 4 inches, and his 2-feet-6-inch wife was the “Half Girl.” They opened a fishing camp with a restaurant, mobile homes and cottages.
More and more “carnies” migrated to the area to spend the winter months of November to May. By 1967 the town was also home to up to 120 selfdefined human oddities such as Percilla the Monkey Girl, Dotty the Fat Lady, the Bearded Lady, Inferno Man, Lobster Boy and Siamese twin sisters who ran a fruit stand, in addition to the carnies.
The town embraced its unique residents, changed zoning ordinances and made other concessions for them. At one time it was the only post office known to have a counter to accommodate dwarves.
Officials changed zoning laws to residential business zone, which allowed the residents to keep elephants and circus trailers on their front lawns. The officials recognized that during those winter months their circus residents needed to practice and perfect their acts and make repairs to their rides and concession trailers.
Giving a beloved resident the boot
When Giant Al died in 1962, his wife took his 35-inch boot and placed it on a cinder block pedestal as a memorial. It stayed untouched for years, but sun and humidity took a toll. In 2007 someone approached Carol Phillips, chairman of Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton, and said they needed to do something about the boot as it looked terrible.
Phillips reportedly drove to the site to take careful measurements to try to replace the boot with a new one, but then it “completely vanished.” A couple weeks later the pedestal was destroyed in a motor vehicle accident. That could’ve been the end of it, but instead concerned citizens decided to build a new boot monument standing at nearly the same site as the original and exactly as tall. It was made out of nearly indestructible composite material and was unveiled Oct. 2, 2010.
While most of the sideshow performers have died, Gibsonton honors their history by being home to the International Independent Showmen’s Association — a nonprofit private organization made up of people in the outdoor amusement industry. The IISA has a museum in Gibsonton, with two floors of antique equipment and detailed circus and carnival exhibits. It’s also home to the largest trade show in the carnival industry.