I grew up in Illinois, but we moved to Sarasota, Florida when I was 17. It was in 1976 and reminders that Sarasota was a circus town were easy to find. Flipping through the phonebook I found a listing for for the famed circus clown Emmett Kelly. It was not at all unusual to see a trapeze a people in someones backyard. After all, the town's high school was home to the "Sailor Circus" and people took this legacy seriously. Our neighbor's parents had owned a circus in Canada and her household pets were a team of performing poodles, with one teeny, tiny Yorkie who would climb on top of the pyramid they used to form. Retired to sunny Sarasota, the poodles eventually died off, leaving the Yorkie as the last survivor of the act. In time, like so much of Florida, he too passed away.
There were the more obvious circus landmarks in Sarasota, such as the John Ringling's home and the Ringling museum. A little more obscure, just up the road toward Bradenton there was a cemetary where many past circus performers are buried.
If you were to travel even farther north, but not quite to Tampa, you would run into a curious little town called Gibsonton, also known as "Showtown U.S.A.".
In the circus pecking order sideshows and carnies were on the lowest rung, and Gibsonton became their curious winter home. "Gibton" is what the locals call it. It isn't a very big place, in fact if it wasn't for the tilt-a-whirls and carnival trailers lining the road you could pretty much blink and miss it.
It is one of those curious bits of Floridana slowly fading away. I think Gibton is more likely to rust than fade, but as real estate prices climbed, wealth and so-called taste prevailed, little bits of Florida-past become more difficult to find.
Traveling south from Tampa along U.S. 41 (the Tamiami Trail), you would cross the Alafia river and there would be the sign advertising Giants Camp Restuarant. It was, of course, owned by a giant, Al Tomani, who stood over eight-feet tall and his wife, Jeanie, also known as "half-woman" because she was only two-and-a-half feet tall. The bought the place back in the 1940's, rented out a few places out back, and soon Gibton would become a winter haven for carnival and sideshow people. Sadly, the restaurant closed down in 2006, but for better or for worse, Gibton lingers on.
It is not unusual to see a pile of circus junk in somebody's yard in Gibton. Where other communities form neighborhood associations to regulate and restrict their subdivisions, in Gibton there is civic pride in having a tilt-a-whirl in your front yard. At its best, Gibton is pretty seedy. If that sort of thing bothers you, you may want to pass on through.
Strangely enough though, it is the part of Florida I miss the most.