I visited the Showmen’s Museum in Gibsonton, Florida recently and it was awesome. It isn’t quite as good as the real thing, but with the lights blinking and the music playing it has that fair atmosphere that I miss. It even has a working Ferris wheel indoors. By the time I left, I was almost skipping down the stairs. In the days before television, movies, and video games, traveling fairs and circuses were prime entertainment. People would wait all year or longer for them. Like trains and bookstores, they hold a special place in our cultural history that will likely persist in some form forever. They kept employed many in society that would likely have had a rough time otherwise, such as midgets, giants, and those with extra limbs. They worked, lived, and travelled together. They really understood what made true entertainment in the old days. Before there were internet cat videos, people put monkeys in tiny cars and rolled them down tracks. Now that’s real entertainment!
I’ve always liked history. I don’t know why. The museum is full of it. They have a machine used to pull up the giant tent spikes when it sadly came time to leave one town for the next. It’s basically a large lever on wheels. The chains at the end were attached to the spikes and the lever pulled down. The museum also has a set of cameras from the original photo booths of the nineteenth century. There is an exhibit on a man who joined the circus in order to travel the country and spread the gospel. There is a reference library onsite and a history blog online. They cover all kinds of subjects, from food to the history of the carousel to the trucks used to transport the equipment across the country.
As chance would have it, I arrived the same time as a man who used to work in the industry back in the seventies. He had driven a long ways to check it out. He told me how he used to set up Ferris wheels without hydraulics and explained how many of the games of skill and chance worked. The place brought back many memories for him. I know how he feels. I can imagine I would feel the same way if someone were to open a fast food museum. When you learn every quirk of the equipment and how to work around the fry vat button that sticks or the freezer door that won’t close, it starts to mean something to you. This is the real good the place does, not just as a location to spend a fun afternoon, but a place that keeps alive the stories of those who worked hard to keep the show going, the dreams of every child visiting a fair for the first time, and the rich and interwoven history of an entire industry.
6938 Riverview Drive, Riverview, Florida
Written By Daniel Noe, InkDoodler.com
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