A Very Late Arrival

Categories: Stories of Impact, BELONGING AND CULTURE: Cultural Development & the Arts,

When the train finally pulled into the station, it was approximately 18 years overdue. Still, Mary Huba and George Miller celebrated as they watched the old car roll down the tracks towards the 1927 Historic Venice Train Depot. It was the end of something and the beginning of something and all the stars previously crossed began to align in a constellation of success.

Setting The Stage and a Small Series of Fires

The fight technically began in the 1980s, when a proud Venetian by the name of Rollins W. Coakley began his 20-year campaign to restore the local train depot to its former municipal glory, but the promise was made in 2003, when the railroad-themed park at the end of the Legacy Trail in Venice opened. The depot was indeed restored and refurbished, to become a small museum showcasing the city’s historical reliance on the far-reaching connections maintained by the railroad—including not just the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus but the Kentucky Military Institute, which preferred to hold winter classes in the Florida clime. Joining the museum on that pastoral spread of rolling green, a restored Louisville & Nashville 6445 caboose gleaming bright red in Seaboard Railroad livery and a whole railroad-themed playground for children maintained the motif while a towering statue of the famous animal trainer Gunther Gebel-Williams reminded visitors of the particular magic carted from city to city on such railbound conveyance.

But something remained missing. An absence felt keenly by those who had a hand in the planning of the whole thing, embodied in a small unclaimed spur of track jutting into the green like a broken promise. Plans to procure a genuine circus train car and turn it into a mini-museum on the history of the circus in Venice had fallen through. And with the opening of the park, the political will had been expended. The story was over and most were looking for a new show. In 2005, Sarasota County officially named the park after Coakley and two years later the man himself died.

“And these tracks have been here since 2003,” Miller says, “empty as can be.”

There was a time when the sight of the old locomotive chugging down the tracks brought nearly the whole town of Venice to a Schrodingerian contradiction—paralyzed with a frenzy of activity. Like a mechanical snake 50 cars long, this monstrous metal python wended its way southward full of magic and mystery to be deposited at the depot in the form of tumbling clowns and majestic elephants, high-flying aerialists and brave animal wranglers, all debarking for a triumphant parade down Venice Avenue.

Folks thronged to the depot, crowded the tracks and lined the streets. Businesses closed down as employees hung out of windows or congregated on rooftops for a better view. Even children were let loose from their scholastic prisons to gawk at the strange visitors and their secret ways. The circus rolled into town every year for more than 30 years—1960-1992—and in its heyday brought prosperity and population to a town that held fewer than 1,000 souls before its arrival. Irvin Feld built a performance arena and a clown college. Elephants marched in the town holiday parade. A grand circus train emblazoned with the words, “Venice, Florida: The Winter Home of the Greatest Show on Earth,” carried word of this proud, sleepy haven to all corners of this strange and misshapen country every year and a Venice priest blessed it before it did.

But three decades is pretty good for an American romance and as the tracks fell to disrepair over the years, so did the depot and eventually the relationship itself between the Ringling Bros and Barnum & Bailey Circus and the City of Venice. The train took off from the Venice depot for the final time in 1993. The clown college closed three years after that.

The Venice Circus Arena held on until 2014 before being shuttered and demolished, but by then Huba and Miller had picked up Coakley’s torch and begun starting fires all around Venice.

Tending the Flame and a Fortuitous Find

Husband and wife transplants from New York, Miller and Huba’s circus memories stem from up north but run deep all the same. Arriving in Venice, they found a small town steeped in outsized history and soon became involved with the Venice Area Historical Society. It wasn’t long before the pair were heading up the VAHS Circus Train Car Project. Their singular goal: to finish what Coakley started all those years ago.

Plucking up the torch and waving it aloft, Huba and Miller set about searching for an available train car suitable to their singular needs. “At the time, we had absolutely no hope of finding an actual car that had been owned by Ringling,” says Miller. Five years later, the Ringling Bros traveling circus would close and cars could be found “on every street corner,” but they were scarce in 2012. So the two sifted through published directories of train cars for sale, looking for something feasible—and within their means.

“The trick is not paying for the train car,” says Miller. “It’s paying for the transportation to get it here.” In some places, an old car can just be rolled down on the tracks it was built for, but more often requires special transportation where tracks are not available. And even if a course can be charted by rail, any sizable journey cross-country entails riding rails owned by several different companies—and each one wants a fee. “Pretty soon, you’re talking real money,” says Miller.

The pair worked diligently but the project really picked up steam when they received a call from the Florida Railroad Museum in Parrish. They had a train car for sale. The previous owner had been the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus.

It was called the “Short Leaf Pine” and had been built in 1953 as a Pullman sleeper car for Louisville & Nashville Railroad. After a brief stint as a dormitory car for the now-defunct Auto-Train, it landed in the hands of Irvin Feld and the Ringling traveling circus. Feld had grand plans for the car as part of a brand new third unit called “The Monte-Carlo Circus,” which would gather all of the winners from the annual Monte-Carlo International Circus Festival in France and bring them to American audiences all across the nation. “Ultimately, it was an experiment that didn’t work,” says Miller, noting the cultural divide between French performers and an audience that thought the Monte Carlo was a car.

In the end, the Short Leaf Pine served as residence for the circus bandmaster and a small retinue of musicians, as well as a whole host of instruments crammed in. Its brakes were checked for the final time, in Venice, in 1993, but the car itself was left behind, for aesthetic reasons, when the train departed for its cross-country tour the following year. Somewhere around Lakeland, the train jumped the rails, resulting in two fatalities.

The Florida Railroad Museum purchased the car shortly after, with plans to convert it into a gift shop, but those plans never materialized and in 2014 Huba and Miller started fundraising in earnest to buy the car, bring it to Venice and turn it into a museum. By 2021, with help from the Gulf Coast Community Foundation, the Kathleen K. Catlin Fund at the Community Foundation of Sarasota County, and a flood of individual donations, the effort raised more than $350 thousand. “Half of that was from individuals,” says Huba. “Donations ranged from $5 to $42 thousand.” More than that, the support was unwavering, despite setbacks along the way. “People are very excited and they’ve been very patient,” she says.

A Hazardous Hurdle and a Grand Reveal

It was January 28, 2021 when the Short Leaf Pine finally rolled down those tracks to occupy that little spur Coakley laid down for it almost 20 years prior. Freshly painted, sleek and silver with “Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey” ribboned down the side and a big badge proclaiming “The Greatest Show On Earth,” it looked a lot different than it had in 2016, when the Venice Area Historical Society first purchased it.

“Fairly respectable,” Miller says today of the car’s condition then. Huba elaborates. While the old train car was certainly bursting with genuine Ringling Bros. circus history, it was also bursting with asbestos and coated in lead paint, to boot. Ostensibly weighing the pros and cons of opening a museum exhibition destined to hospitalize its patrons, Huba and Miller set about fundraising once more, this time to gut and rehab the whole 85-foot-long car. A local Venice outfit—UniGlide Trailer—took care of the job and, finally, all that remained was to install the exhibition.

Boarding the train today, visitors can see what drove Huba and Miller to dedicate nearly a decade of their lives to the project. Gone is the rotting wood and carcinogenic interior, the low ceiling and dirty floor, replaced with stark white walls under a polished and painted and gently curved shell—rather much like a modern gallery space squeezed into a train car, which is exactly what it is. And those walls now stand bedecked with circus history, telling the strange, proud tale of a small Florida town and the circus that loved her.

So when the Circus Train Car Museum finally celebrated its grand opening with clowns and model trains and a pair of genuine Wallendas working the high-wire, Huba knew it was worth the wait. And the work. “We’re hoping people realize that Venice is a special place,” she says. “That this is a place where magic happened.”

See this article as it originally appeared in SRQ Magazine in September 2023 here.

Written by Phil Lederer; photography by Wyatt Kostygan