By Charles Nelson
Indeed, one of Gibsonton’s most fascinating historical characteristics is the large number of carnival workers who called the town home. But the carnival folks didn’t create ‘Gibtown,’ as they called it. Gibsonton got its start in 1923, when Tampa attorney James B. Gibson Jr. sought to turn his family’s “old homestead” into a thriving new community during Florida’s 1920s Great Land Boom.
In 1884, James Barney Gibson Sr. moved his family to Hillsborough County from Alabama to start anew. He chose a homestead on the south bank of the sparsely settled Alafia River (west of today’s U.S. 41). Long ago, that location seemed the site of a small, native village dating to around 800 A.D. (A large shell mound and a burial mound stood on Gibson Sr.’s homestead.) His family made a reasonable living in farming and in selling shell to pave roads in Hillsborough County. Yet, it was his son who became the father of Gibsonton.
James B. Gibson Jr. was born in 1893 on the family homestead. Homeschooled at first, he later attended the Riverview school until the ninth grade and graduated from Mulberry High School in 1911. In that same year, he enrolled at the University of Florida and graduated in 1913 with a law degree. After marriage, Gibson opened a law office in Tampa and moved his family from the Alafia to Hyde Park.
Yet, young Gibson’s dream was to create a ‘metropolis’ on his family’s “old homestead” property. So, in 1923, he platted Gibsonton-by-the-Bay and began offering lots for sale to potential builders and speculators alike.
Gibson advertised heavily in area newspapers. He touted the area’s excellent citrus farming potential. He appealed to sportsmen by offering easy access to the finest hunting and fishing grounds anywhere in Southwest Florida. Gibson sought to entice a builder to construct a 100-room hotel, equal to the Bellaire resort in Clearwater.
Perhaps foreshadowing the town’s penchant for the unusual, he displayed pictures of the world’s largest beet and the largest, and only, olive tree in Florida to illustrate the town’s exceptional fertility, sure to lure potential buyers to at least take a look.
Early land sales in the new community were brisk. That’s not surprising, considering the land frenzy occurring all over Florida. Unlike some other ‘Boom’ projects where speculative sales were the only game in town, a fair number of Gibsonton buyers constructed homes. Gibson himself moved his family from Hyde Park to Gibsonton after building a reasonably good-sized, modern wood-framed building along the main highway.
By 1926, Gibson boasted of making over $100,000 in commissions, equivalent to almost $1.5 million today. Yet, at the same time, his dream began to fall apart as the ‘Boom’ turned to ‘Bust’ starting in that same year.
Gibson began to realize that much of his earnings were paper dollars. Sales contracts failed, and Tampa area banks where Gibson stored his money began to collapse. Fortunately, Gibson had brokered the sale of a large plot of land on the north side of the Alafia to U.S. Phosphoric, which opened its first plant in 1924. That commission provided a sizeable monetary cushion, allowing Gibson to weather the Bust and the Depression years.
The town grew slowly after the Depression years, but it did grow. As sales increased, Gibson added several additional sections to the original plat along the river as far south as today’s Gibsonton Dr. The town of Gibsonton survived. In later decades, the small village grew to include Gardenville, Garden City, Remlap and Adamsville, and today is home to about 14,000 people.
Gibson moved his family back to Hyde Park in the 1930s and continued to practice law until he died in 1965. He continued to be active in real estate sales involving his eponymous town.
He founded a church (the Practical International Church and served as its minister). He was a chess master, a writer and—at his death—was attempting to create a Boys Club in Florida. James B. Gibson Jr., the “Father of Gibsonton,” was a remarkable man.