By Charles Nelson
There were no guarantees that any pioneering community would last. Lillibridge, in Eastern Hillsborough County, located where today’s Jameson Rd. crosses the South Prong of the Alafia River, is one of those communities that didn’t make it. The village had its chances. Still, the forces that would make the difference to surviving communities failed to take root there.
Like many Hillsborough County communities, Lillibridge began with a single settler. Morton Lillibridge, a Civil War veteran from Connecticut, obtained 160 acres of Florida land in 1889. He bought lumber from a Keysville mill to construct a modest 16×16, two-room house to build his home. Uniquely, he completed the home with no roof over the main room, exposing him to the elements and offering no protection to weather and unwanted creatures.
A year later, he invited his brother, Roger Sherman Lillibridge, also a Civil War veteran, to join him. Along with his wife, Corrine, and their son, Cliff, Roger bought 40 acres from his brother and started a small farm. Roger became the community’s first postmaster in 1897. Years later, a neighbor’s son revealed that Corrine did most of the work associated with the Post Office when not teaching piano or organ to neighboring children. (Roger, however, gets all the credit for the town’s establishment, and Lillibridge carries his name.)
People are required to build a community. Several Connecticut friends followed Roger to the area, creating a small, thriving village amid the dense pine forest of Eastern Hillsborough County, three miles northeast of Picnic. Most of these pioneers planted small, subsistence-level farms. A farmer might sell this excess crop, but the effort required a three-day trip by oxcart to reach the Tampa market. Good roads and access to markets must exist for farmers to create larger, more productive markets to make farming economically viable.
A community also requires supporting infrastructure. One early Lillibridge settler, Clarence Bugbee, operated a grist mill, a sawmill and a blacksmith shop. Crucial supporting industries, lumbering and turpentining, surrounded Lillibridge, providing needed jobs and supporting Bugbee’s blacksmithing business. Across the river, Corbett’s axe handle business took advantage of the available raw materials.
Lillibridge’s most significant break came with the discovery of phosphate in the 1890s. Large phosphate companies bought land all around the community. As a result, more newcomers moved to the area, causing Lillibridge to become something of a Hillsborough County phosphate boomtown.
In 1904, a new bridge across the river trimmed travel time to Plant City and Tampa for better market access. In 1905, the Seaboard Air Line Railroad brought train service through Lillibridge on its Keysville-to-Bartow line. These improvements encouraged larger farms. No Lillibridge farmer ever struck it rich, but they were able to supplement their income. The elements necessary for the survival and growth of Lillibridge were now in place: new people, better transportation, infrastructure and supporting industries. Its future looked bright.
In short order, however, the bottom fell out in every possible way, dooming the small community. The overcut pine forests were exhausted, and the lumber industry collapsed. The phosphate industry opted to mine ore in other parts of the county, abandoning the lands around Lillibridge. In 1916, the Seaboard Air Line Railroad ditched the tracks it had constructed 11 years earlier. The Post Office shut its doors in 1916. The community rapidly diminished in size as people moved away and did not return.
By the mid-century, only four families remained in the area. Once listed on Hillsborough County’s register of historic places, the sprawling Jameson House (owned by one of Lillibridge’s earliest settlers) was demolished sometime before 1995. The house was one of the last reminders that a community existed about 3 miles east of today’s state SR 39.
The history of Lillibridge is instructive. Without jobs, easy access to markets, supporting industry and transportation links, people will not stay in a community. The story of Lillibridge provides us with a lesson on understanding why these once proud communities no longer exist.