Imagine a town where everyone has run away to join the circus. That's what it's like to live in Gibsonton, Florida, home to all manner of circus sideshow performers since the 1940s. During the town's heyday, its population included some of the most renowned sideshow acts in history: Al "The Giant" Tomiani, and his wife, Jeanie, "The Half-Woman;" Melvin "The Rubber Faced Man" Burkhart; Grady "The Lobster Boy" Stiles; Percilla, "The Monkey Girl;" and the conjoined Hilton sisters. Even today, with the town's better days well in the past, Gibsonton is full of circus performers who are just going about their daily lives.
Gibsonton didn't start out as a haven for circus freaks. It originally housed fisherman and those who worked at the nearby lumber company. But by the 1940s, the year-round beauty of Gibsonton started to attract snowbird sideshow performers who were looking for a welcoming place to spend the off-season. Just a 20-minute drive from Tampa, Gibsonton is one of the strangest and most fascinating towns in America.
Let's take a peek at life inside this one-of-a-kind community with some facts about Gibsonton Florida, its history, and the people who call it home.
In its salad days, Gibsonton claimed some of the world's most famous - and infamous -sideshow acts as residents. Bearded ladies, giant men, conjoined twins, sword-swallowers, and fire-eaters, just to name a few, all settled in this sunny little berg. Some stayed for a season, some stayed for the rest of their lives. One of the last remaining bastions of that era is Ward Hall, known as the King of the Sideshow. Hall is dedicated to keeping Gibsonton's story alive. Now well into his eighties, he is an expert on both the town and the history of circuses and freak shows, serving as a consultant for numerous fictional works on the subject.
The Gibsonton Post Office long ago recognized the needs of its unique citizenry. So, they outfitted the building with amenities that would meet the requirements of such an exceptional population. The post office boasted a specially-designed low counter for the little people in town, the first post office in the United States to offer such a feature. As the sideshow acts have died off, the need for the low counters dwindled. Nowadays, they are of average height, but Gibsonton will always have the distinction of being perhaps the nation's first accessible post office.
Sideshow acts are now a relic, a throwback to another time and place. There are many reasons for this, ranging from the declining popularity of circus acts in general to the more widespread acceptance of people with disabilities, deformities, and other challenges. But small, dying towns are still towns, and there are still circus performers who have made their homes in Gibsonton. And the residents, many of whom are descendants of Gibsonton's original freaks show performers, embrace the town's legacy. One local bartender described her job like this: "It's not a job, it’s a lifestyle."
Since some Gibsonton residents are aging or retired circus performers, the town offers housing especially for them. There is a retirement village that, perhaps ironically, "looks like an empty fairground." The International Independent Showmen’s Association, which runs the local circus museum, pays for the housing costs of the members who live in the retirement community. The money comes from the dues all Association members pay. Each unit is a self-contained apartment with a small front porch and a little barbecue grill. It's like The Golden Girls, but with circus freaks.