No one should be surprised that an episode of the ‘X-Files’ was set in Florida.
You’ll remember this one: Mulder and Scully head to Florida to investigate the murder of the Alligator Man, good citizen of Gibsonton, Fla., a wintering town for circus performers since at least the early 20th century.
Their list of suspects includes the Fiji Mermaid, a dog-faced boy and a whole cast of human oddities who aren’t exactly jazzed that the FBI has invaded their privacy.
‘The truth is out there’
Although the show was taped in Vancouver, B.C., Gibsonton, sometimes called Showtown and Gibtown, is a very real town of 14,234 residents about 10 miles south of Tampa on US Route 41.
Makes sense that it’s where it is – Barnum & Bailey and the Ringling Brothers (now the same company) headquartered in Tampa.
Since its beginning, Gibsonton has been a happy home for sideshow performers.
The most famous residents make for an impressive display: Colonel Casper Balsam – circus midget and munchkin in ‘The Wizard of Oz’ – Priscilla the Monkey Girl, the Lobster Boy Grady Stiles, The Giant – eight-and-a-half-foot-tall Al Tomaini – and his two-foot-tall dwarf wife Jeanie the Half Girl.
In the heyday of ten-in-one sideshows featuring Inferno the Fire Eater and the Mule-Face Woman Miss Grace McDaniels, Florida’s mild winter climate offered a welcome respite in the off-season, and our tolerant social mores helped the good folks feel more at home.
So much so that many retired to Gibsonton.
Turning a buck in Paradise
As Gibsonton grew into a village, it didn’t take the residents long to find their niche in the Florida tourist economy.
Al the Giant and Jeanie, “The World’s Strangest Couple,” opened trailer park and a fish camp that grew into its very own legend with Tampa Bay fishermen.
The famous Hilton Siamese twins, Daisy and Violet, owned and operated the local fruit stand.
Of an evening at the Showman’s Lounge, the late Melvin Burkhart, the Human Blockhead, hammered six-inch spikes up his nose and then wowed with his show as the Rubber Faced Man.
Gibsonton’s enlightened zoning laws allowed all residents to keep elephants and circus trailers on their front lawns.
Lions and tigers and bears! Oh my!
As you’d expect, Gibtown, as it has been called, was a popular place.
Accordingly, the people who lived there and loved performed as grew more civic minded.
Al the Giant served as both Gibsonton’s police and fire chief.
To make certain that visitors could mail their souvenir postcards right away, the town magically sprouted a post office – at one time the only one in the country with a special low counter just for midgets, dwarves and children.
Although Gibtown is not as sexy as it used to be, it still has very close ties to the carnival industry and show biz.
Home to the largest trade show in the industry, Gibsonton’s frequent hands-on exhibits include working rides, plush toys and other novelty items, jewelry, cotton candy demonstrations and concession trailers, etc.
Gibston is also headquarters of the International Independent Showmen’s Association, Inc., a non profit private organization made up of people in the outdoor amusement industry.
Known as the Gibtown Showmen’s Club and founded in 1966, the group has grown into the largest showmen’s association in the country, with 4,500 members all over the US and all around the world.
Obfuscate, inveigle & deceive
As you drive through Gibtown now, it looks – almost – like any other small Florida town, down to the grocery store, the gas station, library, and the odd tattoo parlor.
But if you listen hard enough, you can still its circus-loving heart beating.
Tour the neighborhoods and look for the leftovers from an old amusement ride in one yard, a concession trailer in another.
Maybe there’s still an elephant or two.
And, um, while most of the original residents have died, their descendents still live in Gibtown.
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OFFICIAL BIO: K Truitt is a second-generation, native Floridian born in Jacksonville. Truitt worked in public higher education for 25 years and knows newspaper publishing, printing and graphic design. Contact: email@example.com