ABOUT GIBSONTON, FLORIDA
Driving on the highway that cuts through Gibsonton, Florida, the sights are pretty unremarkable: old, rusting trailer parks stand right next to the road; truck stops serve hot coffee and eggs every morning till eleven; gas station attendants in full company uniforms wait on easy-going customers. The town has a grocery store, a fertilizer factory, a library and a small tattoo shop, and in appearance looks like any other southern town. However, if you drive a little further, through the small neighborhoods and back roads, you begin to discover that this is no ordinary town. In one front yard, a huge Ferris wheel looms awkwardly over a small suburban street. Across the road three full-grown tigers sleep in the hot Florida sun. Next door there’s a sign in front of a house advertising illusions and magic tricks. Down the street, the Parnells practice the monkey act they’ve been doing for some forty years.
In mid-November the town bustles with activity. At Giants Camp Restaurant and Showtown USA Lounge the younger members of the community are being welcomed home by the retired citizens who sweat out the hot summer months. Ward Hall has just returned home with his traveling side-show and, just like last year, claims this is his last season. Melvin Burkhart, who originated “The Human Blockhead” act in the twenties, gathers a handful of fan-mail in front of his trailer-home. All around town empty lots fill up as carnival trailers pull in to rest for the winter.
Eddie and Grace LaMay, who ran one of the best carnival cookhouse concessions, were among the first carnival people to settle in Gibsonton. The couple stopped their trailer by the Alafia River one fall in the early 1920’s for what they thought would be an hour’s rest. Eddie cast a fishing line in the water and immediately caught several fish for dinner that night. Moments later a group of locals came walking towards the trailer and the couple figured this would be the end of their stay. But the town’s people just didn’t have the usual prejudices against carnies and, instead of chasing the couple out of town, greeted them warmly. Good fishing and friendly neighbors were enough to convince the couple to stay, and they eventually opened a popular restaurant called Eddie's Hut.
Word quickly spread and Gibsonton became the winter quarters for showpeople. The town soon developed into a home-base for these nomadic people. It created a permanent community and a lasting sense of family.
In the beginning, most of the town literally rolled in for the winter and disappeared each spring. Each November the Ringling Brothers' Circus train would arrive and unload its performers, followed by a convoy of mobile homes, truck-loads of concessions and circus animals. Gradually, some showpeople opened businesses while others retired. The year-round population of Gibsonton began to grow. Tents and make-shift shacks were replaced by houses, and mobile homes gradually stopped moving.
Away from the fast-paced life of the midway, where competition is fierce and every dollar counts, the settlers of Gibsonton have carved out a place for themselves and forged an extremely close community. Like the frontier towns of old, Gibsonton has today retained its rough edges and rugged individuality.