Sunday Favorites: Welcome to ‘Midget City’

Sunday Favorites: Welcome to ‘Midget City’

Published Sunday, December 1, 2013 12:05 am
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A member of the Doll family rides an elephant at the Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Baily Circus. 

Photo: Florida Memory Project

In the 1950s, just three miles south of the Sarasota City limits, there were plans to build a Florida version of Munchkinland, with buildings and roads designed for people less than four feet tall. 

A female promoter, Mrs. Neal Chaplin Swalm, wanted the site developed into a small-scale city called “Midget City” with only little people living and working within the limits. 

Those residents would serve as a spectacle for tourists who would be renting rooms at a nearby “normal sized” hotel, but window-shopping in undersized storefronts and dining in restaurants run entirely by dwarves. 

Sound odd? It wasn’t the first time a group of people had been imported purely for show.

Sarasota had become a mecca of strange and outlandish tourist attractions ever since John Ringling announced that his beloved Sarasota would serve as the winter headquarters of the “Greatest Show on Earth.” The show had been based in Bridgeport Connecticut in years prior. 

The move was anticipated to provide much-needed employment opportunities for Sarasotans and an incentive for tourism after a major hurricane in Miami in 1926 contributed to the end of the Florida land boom during the 1920s. 

The world’s circus barrens had made it their mission to seek out unusual humans and show them off to the world. 

In 1929, a man by the name of Dr. Eugene Burgonier brought 12 Ubangis women from Africa to be featured in the circus. The women, who considered it a sign of beauty to stretch out their lips with ceramic disks, were paraded around the arena in front of circus goers and advertised as “the world’s most weird living humans.” 

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Florida Governor Fuller Warren meets with little people in Sarasota. 

Photo: Florida Memory Project

In his book, Hidden History of Sarasota, Jeff Lahurd describes how the circus theme had spread throughout Sarasota County by the 1950s. He lists a handful of attractions including Sarasota County Horn’s Cars of Yesterday, the Glass Blowers and Texas Jim’s Animal Farm to name a few. 

Lahurd writes that Swalm came up with the idea of “Midget City” while interviewing Nate Eagle, “Midget Impresario,” for a book he’d been writing about managing little people in other “midget cities” around the world. Eagle managed famous stars including Dottie Williams, who was often referred to as “the miniature Rita Hayworth,” and others like Dot Wenzel, a singing and dancing personality and Trinidad Rodriguez, who Lahurd refers to as “the smallest woman in the world.”

By the 1930s a worldwide fascination with little people and the popularity of the movie the Wizard of Oz had prompted several other theatrical performances starring little people. Small-scale villages were popping up all over the world and Swalm believed her miniature endeavor would be the perfect fit for a city already associated with humans of every shape and form.

The 40 acre tract that Swalm had plotted for her town was to be incorporated and completely run by little people; they would have their own mayor, police department and fire department. 

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Two little people pose in front of a circus train. 

Photo: Florida Memory Project

Swalm’s plan was to attract little people to the location by offering them free rent if they would spend their winters in the town she had created just for them. Swalm believed her residents would make money for their utilities and amenities by running the businesses that she would build onsite. And one can’t forget that the miniature people would bring miniature fruit to sell to guests when they arrived on the bus. The whole endeavor would cost an estimated $290,000. 

The biggest money making businesses, Swalm predicted, would be television publicity and a small-scale girls fashion industry where children could buy “ladies’ clothing” that resembled there mothers’ attire but fit their small stature. 

It is unknown why her plan never came to fruition. But despite the lack of development, the legends associated with Swalm’s vision have had a lasting effect on the Sarasota Community. It was believed that Ringling built small-scale houses for the Doll family, a clan of little people that toured with his circus. 

Anita Bartholomew was sure she’d purchased one in the 90s when she signed the deed for a Norman Revival style home, also known as “the midget’s house,” that was built in Indian Beach in the 1930s, then moved to the Sarasota mainland several years later. 

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A man poses before a show.

Photo: Florida Memory Project

In an interview with the Sarasota Herald Tribune in 2012, she describes the “circus lore” attached to the building and tells the reporter, Marsha Fottler, how her cat Murphy’s “funny reaction” to “something,” which she believed to be the ghost of a little person,  at the bottom of the staircase prompted her to hire a feng shui practitioner to neutralize the home. 

Bartholomew turned legend into fiction when she authored a book, “The Midget’s House … A Circus Story, A Love Story, A Ghost Story,” that is currently available in the gift shop at the Ringling museum. She stresses in a prologue that her book is simply fiction and lacks historical evidence to confirm her romantic tale. 

Sarasota remained the headquarters for the circus through the 1950s, and then in 1960 it moved to Venice, which is still known as “Circus City” to locals. 

While “Midget City” never materialized its impact on the Sarasota community remains active and every time one drives on U.S.41 from Sarasota to Venice, they can squint their eyes and try to imagine Swalm’s big dreams for the little city.