In the 1930s and ’40s, Florida played a part in that slice of American history concerning carnivals and circuses, which were very popular at the time. Many places in the state became winter havens for show folk in their off-season. The weather was mild and living areas inexpensive. Many communities, especially trailer parks, became known for catering to these most interesting people. Englewood Beach was one of those spots.
By 1927, the Chadwick family had built the first bridge across Lemon Bay. The purpose of their privately built toll bridge was to provide access to their proposed Chadwick Beach Subdivision, which was to be built about where our public beach is today on Manasota Key.
The Chadwicks then built a large structure on the beach they called the Chadwick Pavilion. Dressing rooms and showers were available for 25 cents. You could buy gasoline, kerosene and groceries. On the weekends, dances were held on the second story of the building, sometimes with a live orchestra.
But the Chadwicks were hit badly by the collapse of the Florida land boom in the late 1920s and they had to let go of most of their property. Lou Woods, a carnival man, bought the Pavilion and a large amount of nearby land. The Pavilion, which was where the White Elephant Pub is today, became known as Lou Woods Casino. It soon earned a reputation of being a real hot spot on the weekends, featuring gambling, whiskey and dancing.
Lou Woods traveled with the Royal American Show, the largest carnival in the country, as head cook. Lou saw his purchase as a good winter business opportunity. He proceeded to coax his carnival friends to spend their off-seasons in Englewood. For many winters, carnies pitched tents along the beach or lived in small cottages they had built, or stayed in Lou’s campground. Englewood Beach became known as an area that catered to show folk.
Here are some long ago remembrances from earlier residents who never forgot the carnival people who were so interesting.
Don Platt’s story
“There used to be a trailer park where a lot of carnies stayed out on the beach back in the ’30s. It was where the Englewood Beach Villas are now. It was run by Lou Woods, he was with The Royal American Carnival Show. He encouraged the carnies to come and spend their off season here.
“Well, I delivered papers in there, in the trailer park, on my bicycle. It was pretty interesting for a kid. In one trailer I would see the midgets, then in another would be the fat lady or the skinny man. There was a tattooed lady, too. My favorite was the snake lady who had scales all over her legs, just like a snake. Those carnival people, they were all the nicest people, real friendly to me.”
Bernie Reading’s story
“I remember when I was a kid, we stayed at Lou Woods’ campground several times. It was about 1935. It was a very nice campground with a large building housing showers, toilets and providing clean water.
“I thought it was great in the wintertime because a lot of carnival people stayed there and they were all interesting, friendly folks, good neighbors, and they all knew Lou Woods.
“You might see the tattooed lady walking by, the midgets. They were great tumblers or maybe the strong man practicing his act. They all looked a little strange, but they were just regular people. They were all very nice to me. I liked the way they all treated me like I was an adult.
“That was where I met Mr. Parker, the most interesting adult I had known up to that time. He was a carnie. He lived in a small trailer with his dog, Dollar Bill. But I guess you could say he had his off moments. Mr. Parker spent a lot of time talking to lizards. I watched him one day, after a long conversation with a lizard, say to it, ‘Thank you, I will talk to you again later. I must go now, my friend Bernie is here.’
“Mr. Parker was a good fisherman. He taught me how to catch sheepshead. He told me to get a burlap bag, fill it up about half full of coon oysters, tie a rope tightly around the top part and smash the oysters with something, then hang it in the water near where you are fishing, It will drive the sheepshead crazy and you will catch all you want. It really worked.”
Mini Pearson’s story
“One night I was driving along the beach road near where our public beach is today. There was a big snake laid across the road. It was so big I couldn’t see either end of it! I was so surprised! I was coming up on it pretty fast so I couldn’t stop — I just went on over it. It was, I guess, 20 feet long!
“I never did know if I was the one that killed it. I know it was killed, because the story was in the paper later. There was a trailer camp for circus and carnival people there on the key. Somebody in that camp had the snake, it had escaped.
“The man who owned it would put it around people’s necks and take their photo. They would pay him for that, of course. Since it was that tame, it couldn’t have been really bad. The snake was probably in the constrictor family.
“Talking about those carnival people, I thought they were very interesting. They had a real colony there. Those people went by their first names. They didn’t give you a last name ever. I always felt bad about that snake.”
Diana Harris is a Sun columnist. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.