The Buck Stops at the ‘Little White House’

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KEY WEST, Fla. — More than once, the southernmost tip of the United States was the center of government. In 1946, following President Harry S Truman’s first 19 months in office — a year when he was thrust into power, made the decision to drop the nuclear bomb on Japan ending WWII and signed the Employment Act of 1946 — he  was ordered by his doctor’s to take a vacation. He chose to visit hole out at the naval station in Key West. It was to begin a love affair with the locale that lasted his entire life.

Over his life, Truman made 11 trips to the island, for a total of 175 days, where he established a “Little White House” away from the Pennsylvania Avenue home he called “the finest prison in the world.”

The facility is now a museum and is open for visitors, although it is still classified as a government building so one must be accompanied by a guide and pictures are not allowed.

Technology allowed Truman to be connected to the business of government by way of radio on a naval boat nearby.

Visitors watch a 10-minute video of Truman’s life which is quite inspiring. It is likely he will be the last president not to have a college degree, and his is the story of a farm boy made good. The tour guide claims that Truman’s mother-in-law didn’t think he was good enough for her daughter, Bess, even when he was president. It makes one wonder what else he could have done to have earned her respect.

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Truman’s presidential staff show off their loud Key West shirts.

Truman loved getting away from Washington, D.C., and was joined by his cabinet on his trips. As soon as he arrived he would change into his tropical Florida shirt and relax. He even encouraged his staff to have loud shirt contests.

He did his work during the day, and in the evening he played poker — for small stakes — at a custom built table. Bess Truman was always concerned that the public would frown on the president gambling, as she did, so the table was designed to have a cover so it looked like a regular round dining table during the day.

Before Bess made her first visit, the house, which was originally the base commander’s residence, was very much a man cave without a lot of thought put into décor. After her visit it was agreed that the residence should be refurbished and more presidential.

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President Harry Truman with his wife Bess ad daughter Margaret at the Key West house.

In 1991, the house was restored to its 1949 appearance. The decoration is quite traditional and not particularly exciting. It looks like visiting one’s grandparents’ home, which makes sense when one considers who it was decorated to please.

While subsequent presidents did not share Truman’s love for the house, it was still the scene of important presidential moments. In 1961, President John Kennedy held a summit there with British Prime Minister Harold McMillan, where they discussed the Cuba situation shortly before the Cuban Missile Crisis.

President Jimmy Carter held a family reunion there in 1996, and President Bill Clinton and Hillary Rodham Clinton vacationed there in 2005.

Any history buff would do well to visit the Little White House. The tour is informative and really gives an insight into Truman the man. He comes across as just a ordinary man thrust into a huge job.

Truman said, “Some of the presidents were great and some of them weren’t. I can say that, because I wasn’t one of the great presidents, but I had a good time trying to be one, I can tell you that.”

Key West’s Little White House was crucial for his mental well being to make big decisions.

When he left office, after firing the popular General Douglas MacArthur, his approval rating was in the low 20 percent. Truman wasn’t worried. He said years have to pass before history can really judge. Most polls rank Truman in the top 10. That makes him a great — although his mother-in-law may not agree.

Ode to the freak show

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GIBONSTON, Fla. — Imagine strolling through a quiet, tree-shaded neighborhood and you pass a bearded lady on her way to the store as a 30-inch-tall woman and her 8-feet-tall husband wave from their porch — all while the neighbor washes his elephant in the front yard. Pretty sure you must be in “Gibton.”

This town of just over 14,000, located 20 minutes south of Tampa, has an interesting history. In the 1940s it became the winter retreat of carnival sideshow folk. As well as offering a temperate climate, local laws allowed residents to keep circus trailers — and even elephants — on their front lawns.

26Gibsonton’s International Independent Showmen’s Museum preserves a history of not just carnivals and freak shows, but also circuses — everything under a tent.

Housed in a 52,000-feet, two-story building, the museum is a loving tribute to a bygone age, filled with vintage rides and objects from the midway

“Gibton,” as Gibsonton is nicknamed, was a popular fishing spot when Al and Jeanie Tomaini, the aforementioned “World’s Strangest Couple” opened a fishing camp and restaurant called “Giant’s Fish Camp.” Other show folk, looking for an accepting community during the winter months, soon followed. Before long the town’s residents included Siamese twins, bearded ladies, giants and dwarves (the local post office even had a counter specifically for little people).

Gibonston was the setting for the X-Files episode “Humbug,” as well as being an inspiration for “American Horror Story: Freak Show” (although it is important to remember that in real life the show folk were just everyday people making a living). Performers also appeared in the movies “The Wizard of Oz” and “Freaks.”

The carnival sideshow business has been in decline for years since its heyday in the 1920s and ’30s, and it is now politically incorrect to exhibit “freaks” — which is certainly for the best. Yet the days of the freak show and the life of the carnies that formed the traveling shows has an exotic appeal.

02Displays include mannequins of the characters from the old freak shows, complete with biographies, vintage bumper cars and rides, a rickety Ferris wheel, and games and prizes of all kinds. The walls are adorned with posters from attractions and personalities, and there is also talk of re-creating a Wall of Death on the grounds.

Upstairs is a pair of large model displays lovingly recreating carnival midways in miniature. The largest spreads some 50 feet and is fascinating in its detail. Rollercoasters and Ferris wheels mix with carnival tents and people milling around. One can find delights with every turn of the head.

09Another display is a model circus carved by Willis Tucker in the 1930s. It was displayed for more than 20 years, winning numerous awards. It was boxed up and stored in an attic for 60 years before being donated to the museum.

The International Independent Showmen’s Museum is a wonderful diversion. It is a tribute to a time when it was quite alright to pay 50 cents to see the Lobster Boy or Percilla the Monkey Girl — a time when no one worried about the safety of leaning over a rail to watch a motorcyclist scaling the Wall of Death.

It may not have been a better time, but it was certainly colorful.

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