Gibtown


Michael McGuire

Have you ever wondered where carnival workers go when the long stretch of county fairs are over? Yeah, me either.

Just kidding. I care about everybody, especially “carnies.” I got the chance to speak with a few at the 159th Chenango County Fair, and I have to attest; whatever they may lack in some people’s eyes, they make up for with it a cowboy-like mystique.

One carny called it Gibtown. All he could say was that it was somewhere in Florida, and that it was the place where most carnies went in the off-season because they didn’t have anywhere else to go. The carny had never been there himself, but claims Gibtown is as real as a loose bearing on the “Ring of Fire.”

“Most of them have no place to go,” said the carnie informer, we’ll call him “Piper.” “They go to Gibtown. It’s got bars, gambling – it’s got everything. It’s got anything a carny could want.”

That’s all I could squeeze out of Piper (we parted on not-so-good terms after I snagged a sweet Bowie knife from him with one supple toss of the ring).

Finishing my tour of the fair, I was mesmorized by the thought of a carny community. In my mind I pictured it to be like an old western mining camp, not all that different from HBO’s version of Deadwood. Swearing, drinking, and violence mixed in with eloquent prose would rule the day in my Gibtown.

Not the case.

Gibtown is really Gibsonton, FL., which is located near Tampa on the Gulf side of the state. It was founded in early 20th century by a circus couple who started a restaurant and bar, which then attracted other restless side show operators, freaks, and carnies, who eventually settled what is today known as Gibtown.

Here is a quote from a documentary on the carnival settlement, describing the endearing people who live there:

“The ominous undercurrent to these lovely portraits is that these people probably had nowhere else to go. ‘We were a society apart from the places that we visited,’ one explains. ‘We didn’t know anybody there, we went in there as strangers, we left as strangers, more or less, and we had to stick together in that respect.”

Gibtown is complete with midway games zoned into the actual town, alive with snakes and tigers and sideshow attractions at every turn. At one point they even had a midget police chief and a giant fire chief. Some people live their year ’round, but most come in the down time from fall to late spring.

It seems like an odd, but neat place. And it is a place that is all their own. We might think of them as weird, and they are weird, but they are people. At one time in my life I just made of fun of carnies and that was it, now I can make fun of them and know, and care, that they have a home.