One Tank Trip: International Independent Showmans Museum

- Who could have thought that Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus would call it quits?

But after retiring its elephants from the ring a year and a half ago, ticket sales dropped more than expected and Feld Entertainment decided to close the show after 146 years.

It was just the latest, and the most dramatic example of the decline of what was a once vibrant form of entertainment.

Back in the 1800's and well into the 1900's, traveling circuses , sideshows and carnivals were probably the only entertainment many small towns across America had.

"You can see the small boy standing on a dusty street, seeing a lion or a tiger in an ornate cage wagon pulled by six perfectly matched white horses as the circus parade came through town," said "Doc" Rivera, curator of the International Independent Showmans Museum in Gibsonton. "Up until that time, they had never seen anything like that."

The Showman's Museum captures and preserves the spirit of a bygone era. An era when the outdoor entertainment industry was at its height.

Walk through the doors, and you'll hear the music of the calliope as the merry-go-round rotates with it's beautifully hand carved horses and other animals.

You'll see the sideshow banners that enticed townies to plunk down their hard-earned money so they could peek at the strange and unusual inside the tent.

Perhaps the most riveting and disturbing were the so-called "freaks," a term that would never be used today, but was at one time commonplace.

Ward Hall, an icon in the sideshow industry, and owner of the infamous World of Wonder show, has a number of pieces of memorabilia in the museum.

"Emmett Blackwelder, who had no arms or legs, worked for us on a salary, but also sold miniature Bibles," Hall told FOX 13.

It was hard life, and a colorful one. A life that lured many a young man, like Lee Stevens, away from his family and onto the sawdust trail.

The first time he saw a circus, he knew the ring was going to be his life.

"I wasn't sure what I was going to do," said Stevens, "But the lights, the magic-- I was hooked."

In the 1950s circuses were forced to compete with a new type of entertainment, one that brought the exotic to people right in their own homes: television. Then came computers and hand held devices. Kids came under technology's spell.

'A One Tank Trip" to the The Showman's Museum is a chance for grandparents and parents to relive the excitement of a circus or carnival playing their town. For kids, it's a look at a fascinating chapter in history that is quickly coming to a close.

For more information, and to plan your "One Tank Trip,"  visit www.gibtownshowmansclub.com.

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