By Charles Nelson
Have you ever visited the Roosevelt River in Hillsborough County? You may have, but you probably didn’t know it. If you’ve even heard of this 22-mile stream, you are one of a very few locals that can recognize this ‘river’ as Bullfrog Creek.
The Roosevelt River is the 1910 marketing creation of Tampa realtor W. D. Davis. He informally renamed it Bullfrog Creek in an attempt to bolster real estate sales in his two new subdivisions located where the ‘river’ empties into Hillsborough Bay. Although the Roosevelt River name did appear in land sale documents, it never popularly caught on and faded into history. More lasting was the name, Gardenville, a town established in 1912, which included those subdivisions.
But today, even the name of Gardenville has all but disappeared. The small village was ultimately swept into the town of Gibsonton, which got its start in 1923 when James. B. Gibson created the suburb of Gibsonton-on-the-Bay on the south side of the Alafia River. The Gardenville name survives as the site of a local park on Symmes Rd. in Gibsonton and includes the park’s restored 1926 Gardenville School, which houses Hillsborough County’s Aging Services facility.
W. D. Davis was a renowned realtor in Tampa, so it was no surprise that he looked to the eastern shores of Hillsborough Bay for suburban development opportunities. But few realized that Davis had larger dreams in mind.
In July 1915, Davis announced plans to build an all-year-round resort for Tampa families. He transformed the Gardenville beach area, where the river meets the bay, into a large-scale recreation mecca. He constructed a dance pavilion and clubhouse, both with “modern lighting, water and sanitary systems.” He also built several “sleeping porch” cottages, furnished with “everything but the groceries” for sale or rental to vacationers.
Hunting, fishing, swimming and boating were featured. Tennis courts and baseball fields were available, and plans for an 18-hole golf course were announced (although never built). Easy access by boat was provided by two boats posting nominal fares, and by car along Bayshore Rd. from Tampa to the Alafia River, where Davis established a ferry service to get motorists to Gardenville.
1,000 visitors attended the grand opening on May 7, 1916, although Davis had anticipated only 300. Ice cream and soft drinks were quickly depleted, and swimmers were forced to share bathing suits as not enough were on hand. Park-goers arriving by boat could not return to Tampa until 3:00 a.m. as motorboats were stuck on a nearby sandbar. Davis offered quick solutions, however, and another large, enthusiastic crowd visited the following weekend.
Weekend crowds did not last, however. By 1917, the war in Europe increasingly occupied the attention of Tampa residents. While there was no gasoline rationing, “Gasless Sunday” campaigns encouraged motorists to save fuel whenever possible.
Nonessential businesses were encouraged to close operations at least one day a week. Land sales slowed. As a result of reduced demand, Davis discontinued almost all Gardenville advertising beginning in 1917.
The final blow to the resort came with the disastrous hurricane of October 1921. The dance pavilion and other facilities were severely damaged.
Today, very little remains to remember the town of Gardenville, and nothing remains of Davis’ resort on Hillsborough Bay but wind-blown memories. They’ve both gone the way of the Roosevelt River.