Historical Markers of Hillsborough: Al & Jeanie Tomaini
About 10 miles south of Tampa, hugging the east side of Hillsborough Bay, is the small unincorporated community of Gibsonton, sometimes referred to as "Gibtown" or the "Sideshow Capital of the World." Gibsonton's claim to fame is that it was once a haven for circus and carnival professionals, who often wintered there during the off season. Many even made it their permanent home.
To accommodate its unique residents, special zoning laws allowed people to keep exotic animals, circus trailers, trapeze equipment, and carnival rides in their front yards. Decades ago, the post office had a low counter to accommodate the locals with dwarfism.
It's in Gibsonton that a monument stands in honor of the area's most civic-minded, and perhaps unique, couple - Al and Jeanie Tomaini.
"World's Strangest Married Couple"
Bernice "Jeanie" Smith was born in 1916 in Indiana. She was born without legs and only grew to be 2 feet, 6 inches tall. Her parents took her on the road in the sideshow circuit as an infant. She performed acrobats under the name "The Half Girl."
Jeanie met Al Tomaini, a fellow performer, in the mid-1930s. Al, born in 1912 in New Jersey, was also of unusual size. His height of 7 feet, 4 inches earned him the name "The Giant." The young lovers, both in their 20s, married in 1936. They billed themselves as "The World's Strangest Married Couple" and toured together for many years.
Giving Back to "Gibtown"
By the late 1940s, the couple had enough of the "sawdust trail" and decided to settle down in Gibsonton. They adopted daughters and opened several businesses together, including a lodge, restaurant, and fishing and trailer camp named "Giant's Camp." Al was credited with gifting Gibsonton its first ambulance, helping to build the community hall, and serving as a volunteer fire chief and deputy sheriff. Jeanie was known for being the local postmaster and seen as a matriarch to the community.
Al passed away at the age of 50 in 1962. His death was attributed to the glandular condition that had caused his gigantism. Jeanie created a memorial for him by placing one of Al's 35-inch boots on a platform out front of their family business. When the boot deteriorated due to time and weather, the community came together to create a replica to replace it. In 2010, a new granite pillar, topped with a sturdy composite boot, was erected almost exactly where the original had stood. The pillar was inscribed with the couple's names.
Jeanie continued to run the Giant's Camp for decades after Al's death. She died in 1999, less than two weeks shy of her 84th birthday. Giant's Camp eventually shut down, but the couple's legacy lives on in Gibsonton today.
The marker is located at 9815 S. Tamiami Trail, Gibsonton, FL 33534. It is on the southbound (west) side of the road.
The current Al & Jeanie Tomaini historical marker was erected in 2010 by the Concerned Citizens of Gibsonton.