Gibsonton, Florida | A Circus Freak Retirement Community

20 miles from Tampa,
there exists a town entirely inhabited by
circus folk, exotic animals, and retired carnival rides. That town is Gibsonton,
Florida, originally a small hub for Floridian
lumber workers and fishermen. Since then, the town
has become a haven for bearded ladies, fire eaters,
tiger tamers, conjoined twins, anyone in the sideshow business. If you ran away to join
the circus in those days, chances were you’d end up
in Gibsonton for a season or for life. Before we get started, be
sure to leave a comment, and subscribe to
our Weird History. Now let’s begin. For the working
circus man or woman, Gibsontown– or
Gibtown, as the locals call it– was a great place
to lay one’s head or heads, whether the goal was to make
it through the off season or finally cashing in on a
lifetime of getting gawked at by strangers for money. World famous entertainers who
have called Gibsonton home include Al “The Giant”
Tomaini and his wife Jeanie, the half woman, Melvin “The
Rubber Faced Man” Burkhart, Grady “The Lobster Boy” Stiles,
Priscilla “The Monkey Girl”, and the conjoined
Hilton sisters. Sadly, Gibtown’s glory days
are pretty far behind it. Happily, its unusual
history endures, thanks to king of the
sideshow, Ward Hill, who serves as the town’s
spokesperson and resident storyteller. The sideshow is, for the most
part, an obsolete industry. There are still those
who are fascinated by the dramatic disabilities,
quirks of nature, and brain-breaking talents
that made human beings professional freaks. But they tend to
limit this fascination to the privacy of the internet. Though we thankfully live
in a more broad-minded time, we shouldn’t forget that
this was once a way of life. And for some, it still is. Fame, fortune, and a
chance to see the world– these things were made
possible by the very quirks that made a normal life in
the old days impossible. These days, Gibsonton
is a place to hang out with other performers
and recount war stories from the good old days, when
you could see your name up in lights. And the bad old days,
when the world treated you like a subhuman. According to Ward, you
take the bad with the good. One Gibtown bartender
put it perfectly. It’s not a job,
it’s a lifestyle. How does one settle down
to enjoy the autumn years of a lifetime in the circus? Gibsonton created a
cozy little village for the retired
entertainer, because he and/or she has definitely
earned some rest and relaxation. In that spirit, the
International Independent Showmen’s Association maintains
the town’s circus museum and its retirement community,
all through dues and donations from its members. Thanks to the
association, all retirees can enjoy their own
private apartment, complete with front
porch and barbecue, without having to worry
about how to get by. Since many suffer
from disabilities– try to imagine the
level of arthritis a 65-year-old
contortionist might endure– this is honestly a
beautiful and wonderful thing. Given the nature of
the neighborhood, Gibsonton was further
ahead of the woke curve than the rest of Florida. The growing town fully
recognized its duty to meet the special needs
of its special residents, and built America’s first little
people-friendly post office. Even though little people have
been sending and receiving mail for as long as
mail has been a thing, somehow no one had thought
to offer a low counter anywhere else in the country. Gibsonton changed that by
specifically designing its post office to be convenient
for people of all sizes. The counters may not
see much use now, but they made postal
service history. A town doesn’t just accidentally
become a hub for circus people. These were entertainers who
wanted to get away from it all, literally. It all being
rubberneckers, gawkers, and the judgmental, who made
just existing a daily grind. Gibsonton has declined
a great deal since then. But there’s a lot of material
in its well-maintained history for fiction writers–
often aided by Ward Hill– looking for a story. Meanwhile, its citizens are just
trying to go about their day. As you might imagine, it gets
old quick, unless you’re Ward. Speaking of Ward, he was
the first to be inducted to the International Independent
Showmen’s Association Hall of Fame. The IISA itself is
essentially 52,000 square feet of ancient rides, politically
incorrect yet fascinating exhibits, genuine used
costumes– including one belonging to famous
burlesque dancer Gypsy Rose Lee– and, of course, a whole
lot of incredible pictures of even more
incredible people doing absolutely incredible things. The site centers around
an aging Ferris wheel and features irreplaceable
pieces of sideshow history. There’s nothing like seeing
that level of dedication to the preservation of
a strange era up close. Seriously, ask Ward. In Gibsonton’s heyday,
it wasn’t unusual to see elephants, tigers, lions,
monkeys, and other exotic– illegal– animals
in someone’s yard. And if you did see
one and report it, you’d be informed that said
animal was exactly where it was supposed to be. This holds true even today. Trainers and performers who
worked with exotic creatures can also live with them, thanks
to Gibtown’s special zoning laws. Carnival rides were
included in those laws. And you can still see them
on many a Gibtown lawn. If you’re lucky, you might
even meet the lone Gibtowner who, according to the
grapevine, continues to keep elephants in the yard. Grady Stiles was born with his
fingers and toes fused together to form claws, a defect
called ectodactyly. That would earn him the
stage name Lobster Boy and lead to a colorful life
in the sideshow business, and, eventually, to
two grizzly murders. Although he developed
incredible upper body strength as a result of his
condition, Grady didn’t have a great handle
on his emotional life, not necessarily because
of said condition. He was notoriously
quick to boil. He drank. He abused his own family. And he shot his daughter’s
fiancee to death the night before her wedding, a crime
for which he received zero jail time despite his confession. Mostly because no prison
could care for anyone with his disability. His wife and stepson didn’t
care for him, either. After putting up with his
rage abuse and alcoholism for years on end, not
to mention the murder, they hired another entertainer
to gun that lobster man down. And all three were
put in a cage for it, where they stayed for
the rest of their lives, despite Stiles’s son’s
denial that it was a hit. By definition, the
modern world has become a kind of anti-carnival. There’s simply no place for it
outside of Gibsonton’s museum, because gawking at obese hairy
women or of lobster-handed men is now frowned upon. The death of the sideshow
can be partially attributed to a rise in education
and awareness in society. Of course, we can’t forget the
role of TV and the internet. When it comes down to it,
even the noblest of us would probably rather
look this stuff up online than slog through
sawdust and elephant dung to see it up close. That’s right. Our laziness and
fickle attention span is at least as much a
factor as our modern morals and the decline of the circus
sideshow and Gibsonton. Gibsonton was reborn in fiction
as the infamous Jupiter, Florida, although idealized. For instance, the character
Jimmy Darling in real life was the murderous Grady Stiles. Freakshow also memorialized
the town’s creeping decay by setting it in the ’50s, a
desperate time for the sideshow business. The portrayal is not inaccurate. Little by little,
Gibtown is fading away, leaving only pieces
of its history behind. Before American Horror
Story, another iconic show used Gibsonton’s unusual
residential makeup as a setting for one of
its best known episodes. During its second
season, The X-Files filmed “Humbug”, episode 12. The episode centered around
a serial killer prowling among the community of sideshow
performers a la Gibsonton. America has more than a
few oddball little towns. But Gibsonton, Florida
holds the distinction of being professionally odd. And although it may
be dying, its legacy is already well-preserved. What do you think of this town? Leave us a comment and
check out more videos of our Weird History.

Dereck Turner

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