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Big boot to return to former Gibsonton Giant's Camp

GIBSONTON — One afternoon many years ago, a giant of a man brought home a giant of a boot and plopped the ugly thing in his living room. His wife, who had no legs, hated the sight of it. When her husband wasn't looking, she crawled over and pushed it toward the back door, just an inch or two each time. Maybe she was just teasing. Or maybe the 35-inch-tall shoe grew on the woman known as Half-Girl. They were almost the same height.

Over the years, the big boot became a nationally recognized town landmark and a beacon for the aptly named Giant's Camp on U.S. 41.

Costumed kids pulled candy from the rubber boot on Halloween. Tourists with cameras posed toe to toe with its 25-inch sole.

It stood in the same spot for nearly five decades, years after the 8-foot-4-inch giant Al Tomaini died in the 1960s, and his little wife, Jeanie, 30 years later.

It stayed after the Giant's Camp property was sold to the local phosphate company and after the last of the Tomaini family left town.

"It became a Gibsonton tradition," longtime resident Carol Phillips said. "The town with the big boot."

A few years ago, the tattered shoe vanished from the overgrown old camp property.

But Gibsonton didn't forget.

After much planning and negotiating, those 3.1 acres of memories will again house a big boot.

It will tower over town — just like Al.

• • •

When Al bought the Giant's Camp property in the late 1930s, there was just one cabin, a little tavern and a short walk to the water.

The giant had dreams.

He built a bait shop close enough to the water that he could fish while he worked. He added cabins and turned the dinky tavern into a restaurant.

Each time they returned home after traveling with fellow carnival folks, Al and Jeanie made improvements. Eventually they quit the circus life to work at their inn full time.

"There was always something going on at the camp," said Judy Tomaini, Al and Jeanie's oldest daughter. "It was just a fun place to be."

Above all, Al was a businessman, Judy said. He belonged to the town's Chamber of Commerce and Egypt Shriners association and started Gibsonton's volunteer fire department.

One night after fighting a blaze that destroyed a family's house, Al came home and asked Jeanie if she'd like some new furniture.

" 'But I like my furniture,' " Judy remembers her mother saying. Her father replied, " 'I think it'd look better if you had some new furniture in here … and, well, the kids need some new clothes, too.' "

Jeanie realized what her husband was up to, and watched as Al prepared to give all their things to the family that lost everything.

"In all the years, I have never heard one person say anything about him except good," Judy said of her father, "how much he helped people. He was always right there."

• • •

Al and Jeanie became Gibsonton celebrities.

People asked the couple to stand outside new businesses for grand opening ceremonies and appear in advertisements. The giant never accepted payment for the promotions, Judy said. "He said that was his charity work."

Instead, Al brought home souvenirs.

Like that time in the 1950s, when he posed for a picture wearing a hefty pair of galoshes to endorse a local rubber company.

" 'Oh, God, what'd he drag home now?' " Judy recalled her mother saying as Al placed the boot by the fireplace. "It was really something else."

When Al died at age 50 in 1962, Jeanie put the boot on a pedestal and moved it near the street as a memorial.

"Being rubber, she figured it would last forever," Judy said.

When the boot started to fall apart, the family poured concrete down its ratty throat, secured it with metal braces and nailed it to its stand.

"It was always like you could look outside and the memories were still there," Judy said.

The boot was in the last photograph taken of Jeanie before she died in 1999. The camp's restaurant closed in 2006. The phosphate company Mosaic bought the land a year later when the family couldn't afford the taxes, Judy said.

The Giant's Camp disappeared. And then one day, so did the boot.

• • •

Carol Phillips, the longtime resident who is also a member of the Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton community group, drove by the camp and did a double take.

"You know how you see something out of the corner of your eye and it doesn't really look right?" Phillips recalled.

The boot was gone.

She called a friend at the soon-to-be-built Museum of the American Carnival to see if someone had taken it for a display.

Nope.

She called every rubber company she could think of to try to find the missing boot's left twin.

No luck there either.

So Phillips and the other Concerned Citizens had an idea.

Why not make a new one?

• • •

For a year, the group discussed locations, finally agreeing that the Giant's Camp property was the only suitable spot.

Mosaic agreed.

The company bought the 3.1 acres in 2008 because it was contiguous to other land Mosaic owned, said Christine Smith, not because it planned to build there.

"To have a replica of the boot at the site will bring back a lot of memories for people who have lived in that community for generations," said Smith, a Mosaic spokeswoman. "The gateway to Gibsonton."

To finance the new boot and a more elegant pedestal, the Concerned Citizens used $6,000 that the group had set aside for U.S. 41 beautification.

Mosaic built a fence around the property and carved out a paved area. The company refurbished one of the old Giant's Camp cabins and stuck it behind the boot's future home.

Phillips said the replica boot sculpture, made of a black composite material, is finished, but she won't say where it's being kept until it's nailed to its granite foundation.

• • •

In late September, the Concerned Citizens, Mosaic officials and other friends of the Tomainis will gather around the spot for a grand unveiling.

Judy said it's too painful for her to return to the old property, but her daughter, Tina, will say a few words. Organizers expect about 100 people to attend the private ceremony.

They've planned a morning ceremony, to take place as the sun climbs high in the sky. Perhaps the guests will look longingly toward the old cabin and its cool, shady porch.

And again, onto the grassy patch of land that was once the giant's, a boot will cast a grand shadow.

Reach Kim Wilmath at (813) 661-2442 or kwilmath@sptimes.com.

Big boot to return to former Gibsonton Giant's Camp 09/09/10 [Last modified: Thursday, September 9, 2010 1:54pm]

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