By Charles Nelson
Our history is a story about, and for, all of us. Sometimes that history is viewed through a single lens producing only a partial story of “long-dead white men.” There are other ways to explore our history. By looking at history from different angles, we can expand and enhance our understanding.
In March, during Women’s History Month, we can do just that by remembering a few of the countless Hillsborough County women who contributed to our shared history.
Janie Wheeler Bing operated the Bing Rooming House in Plant City from 1925 to 1970. The Bing Rooming House was one of the few hotels providing a haven for visiting African Americans during Florida’s segregation era. Black businessmen, truck drivers, travelers, nationally known sports stars and musicians were all welcomed to one of the very few Plant City hotels available to them. Bing also operated the Seminole Restaurant, next door to the hotel, until she retired in 1955.
The Bing Rooming House is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Today, the building serves as a museum of the African American experience in Plant City during Florida’s segregationist past.
Victoria Joyce Ely was a World War I nurse for the British Army at Rouen, France. Following the war, she worked as a nurse in Perry, Florida at a time when a severe outbreak of malaria and typhoid fever gripped the region. As a member of Florida’s Board of Health, she traveled a nine-county area, often carrying a gun safely locked in the trunk of her car for protection in this rough and tumble section of Florida.
Ms. Ely returned to Ruskin in 1943. There she opened the first county-run health clinic in Ruskin and was the only trained medical professional in town. She was the only person licensed in Ruskin to give injections from her small office. Her threadbare office didn’t even have running water, forcing her to sterilize needles at her home. Today’s Joyce Ely Medical Center in Ruskin honors her memory.
Bernice ‘Jeanie’ Smith Tomaini from Gibsonton was the diminutive wife of the giant Al Tomaini. While her husband got most of the publicity, Jeanie—born without legs—billed herself as ‘The World’s Only Half Woman,’ standing 2’6” in height. She was, however, every bit Al’s equal in the sideshow world of the circus carnival. Many in Gibsonton considered her as the ‘grandmother’ of the town’s circus workers.
In Ruskin, Jeanie raised her two adopted daughters and outlived her husband by 37 years. She worked tirelessly to help shape Gibsonton into a safe, off-season haven for circus workers. She continued to manage the Giant’s Fish Camp after Al’s death until her death in 1999, always fighting to retain the character of her adopted home.
Mabel Claprood Simmons was often called the “First Lady of Florida Flowers.” She was a member of the Florida Agricultural Hall of Fame. It was in Ruskin where she spent her professional life in the floral business.
At one time, Mrs. Simmons was the largest flower producer in Florida. She is credited with developing gladiolas that sprouted early enough to avoid frost. She is also credited with developing controls for industrial plant emissions and was a respected environmentalist.
There are so many other Hillsborough County women whose stories could have been featured here. A few of those include Sarah Dormany Boyett and Victoria Seward Brandon, who were the ‘founding mothers’ of late 19th-century towns named in honor of their late husbands.
Julia Daniels Moseley was one of the original settlers in Limona in the 1880s. She detailed the difficult conditions of pioneer life in a collection of letters later published in a book titled Come to My Sunland.
Edna Giles Fuller, born in Plant City, was the first woman elected to the Florida Legislature in 1928, representing Orange County.
These stories, and others, are wonderful reminders that women have contributed so much to Hillsborough County’s history.