For those who didn’t quite fit elsewhere, Gibtown was a utopia. Its first settlers, the Giant, and his wife, the Half-Woman, ran a campsite, a bakeshop and the fire department. The post office catered to little people with extra-low counters, and the beer hall had custom-built chairs for the Fat Ladies and the Tallest Man. Special zoning regulations allowed residents to keep and train exotic animals in their gardens. Siamese-twin sisters ran a fruit stand. Three factories manufactured Ferris wheels and carousels.
In the golden days of American carnival, all roads led to Gibsonton, Florida. The self-defined, 14,900-inhabitant town 12 miles south of Tampa became the industry capital. “Carny Town” was a fabled place where everyone had run away with the circus.
In 1967, it was home to up to 100 self-defined “human oddities”, in addition to several thousand “carnies”. Balmy winter weather offered a foothold in a nomadic lifestyle, where rides could be repaired, big cats trained (“every day, or they forget”) and stunts practiced during the off-season. It was a safe haven, away from prying eyes.
On the lush banks of the Alafia River, the unlikely community carved out a tropical paradise for themselves. The Tomaini couple arrived first, spreading the word over the carnival grapevine of a place of strawberry fields, orange groves and rivers full of fish, where locals didn’t shun show people. Conveniently close to Sarasota and with the railway passing through, the location was ideal. A chain migration sparked off as those operating rides, games and cotton candy stands followed suit. As the society grew, its residents named streets after themselves.
In return for their contribution to the local economy, residents of Hillsborough County were granted permission to keep carnival trailers, rides and animals in their gardens. Gibtown became a sanctuary, and the stigma associated with the trade was convenient as well: outsiders stayed away thanks to rumors about “carnies” stealing children. The world’s showtown capital remained a well-kept secret, purposely never a tourist destination. Together all those performers created a family of their own – often, the only family they had.
However, today, with the demise of the carnival, and of Gibtown, an important slice of American history risks being lost – though residents try hard to keep the legacy alive. A metal replica of an enormous boot, crowdfunded by Concerned Citizens of Gibtown, marks the town’s entrance and the spot where the Giant’s Camp once stood. Downtown, the recently opened Showmen’s museum features antique rides and non-PC minstrel show posters.
“We hope that schoolchildren can come here to see that you can be whatever you aspire to be,” says Debbie Rivera, a museum associate. “That you can dream of something, work hard and make it happen.”
According to theguardian.com