A History of
South Hillsborough County

by Robert William Klein

Staff Writer, The Sun

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One hundred years ago, Hillsborough County had been through a tremendous 10-year growth spurt, due to the impact of the railroads and the cattle, phosphate and cigar industries. Between 1890 and 1900, the county's population had more than doubled, from almost 15,000 to more than 36,000.

But south Hillsborough - an isolated collection of farming communities, phosphate mines, cattle ranches, sawmills and turpentine stills - lagged behind the rest of the county in both population and industry. In 1900, the population living south of the Alafia River probably numbered only in the hundreds. By 1918, the population of Wimauma was 500; that of both Ruskin and Balm was 200; that of Gibsonton was 150; and that of Riverview was 100.

One hundred years ago, citrus farmers in present-day Wimauma traveled two days by ox-drawn wagon to get their produce to market in Plant City. It was easier for many South County residents to travel to Tampa by boat than it was to travel overland. A one-way road trip from Ruskin to Tampa via Riverview took eight hours - if the roads were dry.

One hundred years ago, State Road No. 5, the first shell road built in the county during the 1870s, ran from Tampa to Wimauma. In Riverview it was known as Riverview Road, in Ruskin as the Wire Road, because telephone and telegraph lines ran alongside it. After various changes and improvements, the road was repaved in 1926 and is today known as U.S. 301.

One hundred years ago, Riverview was an 8-year-old town on the northern bank of the Alafia River. On the opposite side of the river was the much older town of Peru, dating to the 1840s. In 1901, a bridge was built across the river, and by 1927 the upstart Riverview had absorbed Peru.

One hundred years ago, Gibsonton was a 150-acre homestead framed by James Gibson Sr., who had arrived from Alabama in 1884. Gibson's neighbors included settlers from across the country, as well as from Germany, England and France.

One hundred years ago, there was no Sun City Center, but there was a small farm community south of present-day Ruskin called Ross, which in the 1920s became known as Sun City.

After 1900, it was the coming of the railroads, more than any other factor, that accelerated the growth of South County.

In 1902, the Seaboard Airline Railroad was built in southeast Hillsborough and Manatee counties, connecting Turkey Creek to Braidentown (Bradenton).

The railroad's developer, a Capt. Davis, decided to build a town at the halfway point of his line. He named the town after the first letters of the names of his three daughters, Willie, Maude and Mary: Wimauma. Wimauma was incorporated in 1925 as Hillsborough County's fourth municipality, but its government ceased to function during the Great Depression. The incorporation was rediscovered in 1993, leading to the question of whether Wimauma could still be considered a self-governing, self-taxing city. It was decided that the 60-year lapse of self-government negated the incorporation.

In 1913, Ruskin was connected to the Seaboard Airline Railroad. The town by then was 5 years old, having been founded as a Christian Socialist commune modeled after the principles of British philosopher John Ruskin. The community centered on Ruskin College, which opened in 1910 and folded in 1918. The last college building still standing is the Ruskin House Bed and Breakfast on Dickman Drive. The only other reminder of the school is the name of the Ruskin portion of State Road 674: College Avenue.

By 1925 the Tampa Southern Rail Road operated a line through Gibsonton, which had become home to the carnival community the year before. Within 30 years, Gibsonton had absorbed the surrounding communities of Gardenville, Adamsville, Garden City and Remlap.

In 1925, the developers of Sun City opened a movie studio that was meant to compete with Hollywood. The studio actually produced two short films before the great Florida land bust turned tinseltown dreams to dust. Today some of the Sun City street names still evoke the era of the silent film: Chaney, Fairbanks, Chaplin, Pickford.

In the 1950s, after a number of false starts, the waterfront community of Apollo Beach was developed north of Ruskin and south of Gibsonton.

In 1962, developer Del Webb opened a retirement community along the Ruskin-Wimauma Road. That road is now State Road 674, and the community is known as Sun City Center so as not to be confused with the earlier Sun City.

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This article is reproduced by the kind permission of The Sun, a Media General Publication serving the Sun City Center community. It appeared in the November 10, 1999 edition.

Additional information about the history of Hillsborough County is available at the Ruskin Library in the Hillsborough County Historical Resources Survey Report.

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