GIBSONTON — Millions of dollars
and many years in the making, a museum unlike any other is
preparing to open here.
GIBSONTON — Millions of dollars and many
years in the making, a museum unlike any other is preparing to
Its exhibits range from human figures no
larger than a fingertip to machinery towering more than 30 feet.
Its colorful wall hangings constitute a
walk through the history of a livelihood that also is a
Its three-dimensional displays can
tickle the funny bone and tease mature memories back to the days
of carefree youth.
Unique though it is, this museum does,
however, share certain commonalities with other such facilities;
it is an invaluable record, a prized celebration, an honorable
tribute to the world of the carnival and to its people, the
independent showmen, the “carnies” who bring amusements to the
country every summer.
Carnivals in America, those cotton
candy, sugared pastry, game barker, blinking lights, thrill ride
extravaganzas that can make kids out of sixty somethings, date
back to the 19th century. The 1893 Chicago World’s Fair is
credited with spawning the traveling carnival when it assembled
a section of rides, games, burlesque and side show curiosities –
the first midway — and, incidentally, presented the first Ferris
wheel built by George Washington Gale Ferris.
Before the Chicago Exposition, circuses
and vaudeville shows toured America’s cities and rural areas,
offering sought-after entertainments in an era when homemade
music and visitors’ conversations were the primary recreation.
After that world’s fair, operators of its midway features took a
tip and took to the road. And America embraced the newcomers. By
1902, there reportedly were 17 traveling carnivals and by 1905
the number more than doubled to 46 such outfits. In 1937 – at
the height of the Great Depression – some 300 carnivals complete
with animal acts, multiple games, flavorful foods, side shows
and rides to amuse all ages were crisscrossing the country.
From there, the world of the creative
traveling amusement purveyors grew into an industry, making
millionaires of enterprising equipment manufacturers, making
good livings for show owners and their families, making
succeeding generations of showmen as sons followed fathers on
the circuit of county fairs and church bazaars, civic
celebrations and volunteer fire department fund raisers.
They began finding their way to
Gibsonton in the 1920s, eventually making it the preferred
winter home for showmen where family ties and friendships could
be renewed, animals rested, equipment repaired, and life slowed
to a normal pace in reliably comfortable weather.
At this point, five generations of carny
showmen in the same family have made Gibtown their headquarters,
says Lee Stevens, as he shows a visitor around the new
International Independent Showmen’s Museum on the Gibsonton end
of Riverview Drive. Stevens, a New York native who notes he left
home to join the circus in his teens, is a past president of the
4700-member Showmen’s Association headquartered in an expansive
complex on the south side of Riverview Drive, opposite the
As a member of the association board
which oversees its several components — among them a showmen’s
retirement village, multiple charities, a scholarship program as
well as the museum – Stevens estimates the local showmen’s
colony numbers at least 15,000. As a lifelong carnival feature
operator and now a food concessionaire who soon will hit the
road with his wife and the youngest of their four children to
work venues in and around Chicago for the summer, he knows his
industry from the inside out. It has great appeal, he points
out, for the independent business individual.
It may have a poor image with some on
the outside – the old “grifter” reputation — he acknowledges,
but it is a “family” whose members attach a high value to the
“There may be competition for bookings,
but if you’re broken down on the road, there’ll also be help.”
And their museum, he indicates, stands as testimony.
The 40,000 square foot structure started
about 14 years ago and finished with a $1.15 million donation
from Jim Frederiksen, a manufacturer of carnival machinery,
houses on two floors a wide assortment of antique equipment,
historic printed materials and detailed exhibits that tell the
carnival story – most of it donated by practicing carnies.
There’s the bright red 1918 Packard
delivery truck that once rolled along small town streets, loaded
with tents and gear headed to set-up, and the 1929 Ford pick-up
once loaded with pretty carnival women calling attention to the
coming event and a horseless carriage like the one Buffalo Bill
used to promote his shows. There’s wall after wall of show
banners which, like labeled cigar boxes and fruit crates,
demonstrates the large number and colorful naming creativity of
There are ride cars that go back many
decades and a delightful hard-carved goat which once graced a
merry-go-round and the fun house mirror that warped the image of
everyone who stepped in front of it. There’s the fully-assembled
Ferris wheel resting on the ground floor but reaching toward the
peaked ceiling above the second. There’s the 60-foot-long midway
in miniature, displaying in minute carved detail every
conceivable ride and food station and side show, lovingly hand
made during off seasons by a Michigan carnival operator. Unlike
the conventional circus, Stevens emphasizes, the carnival offers
Tucked away on the second floor, reached
either by a grand staircase or a new elevator, is a library
inviting attention to dozens of books related to the industry
and outside are several of the large carnival trailers which,
with their brightly lettered signage, could excite an entire
community when they arrived, forecasting the wonders of the
carnival soon to welcome one and all.
As many features as the museum has,
though, it’s not finished yet. Stevens foresees a repair
workshop on the second floor as well as more displays. But
what’s needed most at the moment is a curator, he adds. Someone
who can become familiar with the industry and the pieces on
display; someone able to maintain regular museum open hours, to
relate to the public, give tours, provide a comprehensive
understanding of the industry for both school youngsters and
seniors, he notes. “And if they have grant writing experience,
it would be good.” Stevens can be reached through the
association office 813-677-3590.
Meanwhile, he’s anticipating some help
from the University of South Florida in cataloguing a collection
of written materials, some of it detailing first hand showmen
experiences, and looking ahead to future exhibits. The industry
is changing rapidly, he says, incorporating new technology such
as LED lights and computerized equipment. Someday, that, too,
will be part of the carnival industry history, another display
for the country’s only showmen’s museum.