Circuses, sideshows and marvels at Ringling and in Gibtown

It was a bit of a hard sell, convincing me to fly to Florida for just a week. I hemmed and hawed, but my ears perked up a bit when Melani told me some of the circus history of the Sarasota area. There could be some good stories there, behind the tents. And then she mentioned, in passing, “that’s where the carny graveyard is.”

“You didn’t lead with that?” I said. As though she’d just met me. With some encouragement from a colleague I made a story pitch and started making phone calls.

In the end, the story wasn’t about the carny graveyard, though we did visit it, and one of the most important lessons I learned is that I don’t have the right to use the shortened form of “carnival worker.” I’m not one of them. I’m not their friend.

Everything is bright and shiny at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, including the statues and staff.
Everything is bright and shiny at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, including the statues and staff.

Deborah Walk, assistant director of Legacy & Circus at the John & Mable Ringling Museum of Art, spent nearly an hour with me in the circus archives in Sarasota. She’s passionate about her work, and about circuses, and her voice lilted in laughter, then near-whispers, in the manner of true storytellers. But she couldn’t tell me about sideshows. “Oh, you should call Doc Rivera and visit the museum in Gibtown,” she advised.

Rivera, a former travelling showman and curator of a carnival museum just north of Sarasota, was harder to pin down. But finally he answered an email. It was clear he’d been burned by people like me before and he wasn’t impressed by my clear punctuation and overly polite tone. He explained why in Question 6, where I had asked whether I could use the word carny:

“You’ll find doors closed in your face if you throw that term around in this town and you’ll just be considered another ‘mark.’ People have been bashed, trashed and painted in a very unkind way by so called ‘journalists’ promising a sensitive. insightful and thoughtful piece only to find out it was finally done as another badly written, sensationalist piece of crap. Folks around here have become very leery of the media for good reason.”

Old trailers from the American Circus — the one in the foreground is modestly labeled "Girl Show."
Old trailers from the American Circus — the one in the foreground is modestly labeled “Girl Show.”

Fair enough. I’m not good at sensational, and I hope to have told the story of wintering circuses in the voices of the experts, Rivera and Walk. Unfortunately there appear to be technical issues with the online story, so the PDF version is here (page 1) and here (page 2).

The mausoleum at Showmen's Rest, where hundreds of performers are buried.
The mausoleum at Showmen’s Rest, where hundreds of performers are buried.

Mabel Ringling and Ca’ d’Zan, the house that love built

“I’m a little bit obsessed with Mabel,” confessed Alice Murphy, without a shadow of shame.

In her capacity as PR manager at the John and Mabel Ringling Museum of Art, she was guiding me across the sprawling Ringling grounds to the mansion on the bay and giving me an impromptu tour as we went.

If one must be obsessed with a character like Mabel, these grounds — bequeathed to Sarasota by the Ringlings — are the only place to be. They are as close to one can get to the quiet, media-shy wife of a circus baron who oversaw the construction and decoration of Ca’ d’Zan.

Every reference book on Ca’ d’Zan — House of John — remarks that it truly is the House of Mabel, as she was present throughout the building, oversaw the mixing of colours and ensured that not one tile or nymph was out of place. But of course she named it Ca’ d’Zan because written between the lines of each of those references is how very much she loved her husband, who showed her the world and gave her the means and freedom to build a palace.

We do not know how Mabel and John met, though she might have been a dancer or other sort of performer in the circus he ran with his four brothers. We do know that they married when she was 30 and he was nine years older, and that they spent most of their time travelling with the circus or on their own, and that she had a special place in her heart for Venice.

They spent only three months of each year in Sarasota, but were pillars of the community. The real-estate baron side of John dreamed of turning the city into a resort paradise, and Ca’ d’Zan overlooked his lands across the bay.

While the grounds are demure and park-like, the Dwight James Baum-designed mansion is exactly what one expects of a circus family. It rises several stories in tones of copper and gold, with tiles as rich as sky and water. Inside are chandeliers and murals, and technologies at the cutting edge of the mid-1920s. It is rich and on the edge of gaudy.

Shy Mabel threw grand parties in and around the 57-room home and on their boat moored just outside the breakfast-room doors. She filled the palace with treasures from auctions, and with quirky design elements, like the sketched punctuation on her bedroom ceiling and the delicately painted flowers in her bathroom cabinet.

“There is Mabel’s rose garden,” Alice says, nodding to our left. It is grand, befitting the first president of Sarasota’s garden club.

Tucked away on the other side of the path and closer to the house, Alice points again. “Mabel’s secret garden. She and John are buried there.”

It is just past a tree that has grown around a statue, trapping it like an unlucky sprite. We honour an unplanned moment of silence. “Just them? Did they have any children?”

“No,” Alice smiles. “Just them.”

Mabel died in 1929 of complications from Addison’s disease and diabetes. John engaged in a short-lived marriage sometime after, but his heart wasn’t in it. It is said he never recovered from losing the beautiful Mabel; he died in 1936 at age 70.

ASL, oralism and Alexander Graham Bell

A diagram by Alexander Graham Bell is painted on the wall of a museum in his honour in Baddeck, N.S.
A diagram by Alexander Graham Bell is painted on the wall of a museum in his honour in Baddeck, N.S.

BADDECK, N.S. — There’s a lot more to this Alexander Graham Bell fellow than telephones.

He was a lover of science who laid a fatherly hand on the shoulders of flight in Canada with the Silver Dart and broke the hydrofoil speed record in 1919.

From his summer retreat in Baddeck, far from the bustle of his home in Washington, D.C., he conducted scientific experiments and became an integral part of the region’s society and history.

But perhaps the most fascinating part of the life of Bell—arguably the most famous communicator—is his work with the deaf and his attempts, while educating them, to keep them from forming any sort of community of their own.

Alexander Graham Bell at work in Baddeck, N.S.
Alexander Graham Bell at work in Baddeck, N.S.

The crusade started with Melville Bell, who was married to a deaf woman. He invented Visible Speech, a series of diagrams to show the deaf which muscles to contract and how to position their tongue and throat. The theory was that, using Visible Speech, a person could learn to speak any language, whether they had heard it spoken or not. Asked to lecture on and teach Visible Speech in his new home in the U.S. in the early 1800s, Melville sent his son, Alexander Graham, in his stead.

The younger Bell considered sign language an abomination and devoted his life to its removal from society. According to, Bell called ASL “essentially a foreign language” and argued that “in an English-speaking country like the United States, the English language, and the English language alone, should be used as the means of communication and instruction at least in schools supported at public expense.”

He also showed great concern that deaf people were forming societies outside the mainstream and feared their numbers would grow. Unlike many believers in eugenics, he stopped short of demanding a ban on intermarriage of deaf people, but he clearly thought it was not a good idea. There were three things he did fight to do away with: sign language, deaf teachers, and residential schools where community and fellowship formed among deaf people. Bell “mainstreamed” children by separating them from their deaf peers to assimilate them into hearing society.

Alexander Graham Bell married one of his oralism students, Mabel.
Alexander Graham Bell married one of his oralism students, Mabel.

The point is not to demonize Bell. While his ways appear backwards now, his intention was to forward mankind through science and education. He encouraged his wife, Mabel—a deaf woman—in her work to establish a public library in Baddeck, a home and school association and, most importantly for the modern feminist, a “club for young women to promote the acquisition of general knowledge.”

Considered the most important American in the history of oralism, he used the profits he made on that other little invention, the telephone, to further the promotion of speech and lip reading over sign language. The deaf community fought back with a series of films in the early 1900s distributed by the National Association of the Deaf. In one of them, association president George Veditz says, “As long as we have deaf people on earth, we will have signs.”

The Alexander Graham Bell National Historic Site of Canada in Baddeck, N.S., is open daily from 9 a.m.-5 p.m. through Oct. 20. Entrance ranges from $3.90 for a youth to $19.60 for a family. The site is free with an annual national parks pass.

Conservative tales and a liberal tour

instruments cumberland museum
Some instruments displayed at the Cumberland Museum and Archives in Amherst, N.S.

AMHERST, N.S. — “Oh, you’re on Toryville Lane!” Brian said with delight. “You know why it’s called that?”

Of course Brian would know. This man knows a lot about the Maritimes, Nova Scotia, and the Amherst area in particular. If you said Amherst was in his blood, you’d be correct: his family arrived in a wave of Yorkshire settlers in the 1700s, sometime after the expulsion of the Acadians.

As a descendent of settlers, and as someone who is clearly as passionate about history as I am, Brian was the perfect tour guide for our visit to the Cumberland County Museum and Archives.

Spread through several rooms of father of Confederation Robert Barry Dickey’s former home, its exhibits are more far-ranging than those politics, with Mi’kmaq artifacts displayed just feet away from intricate sculptures carved by Ukrainian prisoners of Amherst’s First World War internment camp, just steps away from the very desk Charles Tupper (an Amherst native) used during his ridiculously short time in the Prime Minister’s Office.

There are days worth of stories in these rooms, and I think if we had those days to spare, Brian—“there’s my aunt,” he says, holding a picture of the women’s hockey team of 1924—would be just the man to tell us those stories.


As it is, we listened, captivated, to the hints of drama beyond the quick history lessons and the mentions of some of the town’s big movers and shakers: the Amherst Boot and Shoe Company, Christies Trunk and Baggage Company, Amherst Piano and others. We laughed gleefully as he pumps the player piano for us.

cumberland museum archivesAs the only visitors to the museum that late afternoon, we were treated with extra care and given a little something extra: Brian opened a door marked “Employees only” and lead us behind the curtain, to a room filled with archives, with hundreds of maps and ancient papers and blessedly little dust. He mourned the fact that the house is only so big, that not everything can be displayed at once. There is so much more in here, so many words and bits of stories that paint a picture of Amherst, Nova Scotia.

So why is the road on which our little cabin sits, six sweet little houses clustered at water’s edge at the end of a gravel drive, called Toryville Lane?

For the very reason you might expect, Brian tells us: “Everyone who built there was a Conservative.”