Town Chronicle

Tracking Venice’s past at the Historic Train Depot




A statue of Gunther Gebel-Williams, “The Greatest Animal Trainer of All Time,” who never missed any of his more than 12,000 consecutive performances — an unbroken circus record.

A statue of Gunther Gebel-Williams, “The Greatest Animal Trainer of All Time,” who never missed any of his more than 12,000 consecutive performances — an unbroken circus record.

“If you build it, they will come.” No, not a baseball field. This refers to railroad tracks and the city of Venice — and a remarkable slice of local history.

Although native people lived here hundreds of years ago, Venice was not officially settled until just after the Civil War. But the real growth began once the railroad came to town.

The city and the Historic Venice Train Depot owe their very existence to Bertha Honore Palmer and the Seaboard Air Line. The last passenger train left Venice on April 30, 1971, but the depot was used for freight until 1997. The station was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1989.

It now serves as a SCAT bus terminal and a museum, featuring multiple displays that detail the history of the community. It’s packed with historical artifacts and fascinating information. Tours of the station are free and are led by knowledgeable docents. Most of the tracks are gone, but a few remain, helping to create the feel of a railway station. The Legacy Trail now occupies the land where the rest of the tracks once were.

Docents Tom Bowers and Kathy McGibbon PATRICIA HORWELL / TOWN CHRONICLE

Docents Tom Bowers and Kathy McGibbon PATRICIA HORWELL / TOWN CHRONICLE

Palmer — a bold, wealthy Chicago socialite, Florida cattle rancher and landowner — convinced the railroad to extend its track system and service to Venice. By 1911, Venice joined Sarasota and Fruitville as stops on the railroad line. The first depot sat at Tampa and Nokomis avenues. The current depot was built in 1927.

Historic Spanish Point in Osprey is part of what was once Palmer’s estate. Her home was in the area that is now the Oaks. She owned most of the land that is now Sarasota County.

But Bertha was only the beginning.

Orthopedic surgeon Fred Albee, who had bought some land from Palmer, decided to hire John Nolen to plan a city. Nolen studied under Frederick Law Olmsted Jr., famous for his design of New York City’s Central Park in Manhattan.

Before Nolen could begin the task, Albee sold the land to the Brotherhood of Locomotive Engineers. The BLE continued with Nolen, and construction began in 1925. Soon, Venice was buzzing with commercial buildings, apartments, private homes and hotels.

Top: A railroad handcar. Above: The entrance to the circus train.

Top: A railroad handcar. Above: The entrance to the circus train.

Unfortunately, the stock market crash temporarily put an end to prosperity in Venice. The bulk of the city’s residents left town, with only a few hundred remaining.

Enter the Kentucky Military Institute (circa 1930). Since hotels and other buildings were already built, KMI saw it as a perfect place to spend its winters. Soon Venice was again bustling — but this time with cadets, their families and other visitors. KMI is often credited with saving Venice. The Venice Centre Mall today operates in a former KMI dormitory. KMI remained in Venice until about 1970, the height of the Vietnam War.

The city can thank the Army Air Corps for the present-day Venice Municipal Airport. The Army built a training facility there during World War II.

In 1960, the Ringling Bros. & Barnum and Bailey Circus left its winter quarters in Sarasota and moved to Venice. After all, Venice had a railroad depot for circus trains to use. Old-timers still talk about the parades that featured performers and animals (especially elephants) as they traveled from the train to their arena. After disembarking, they all marched over the South Bridge, now known as the Circus Bridge, according to docent Tom Bowers.

 

 

Gunther Gebel-Williams, a famous animal trainer, helped to attract tourists to the area for the preview shows. He lived in Venice until his death.

Rollins Coakley Railroad Park is right next to the train depot. It was named for Coakley, who spearheaded the drive to restore the train depot. The work was completed in 2002-2003.

The park is home to a restored Pullman railroad car that once belonged to the circus. The refurbished train car was placed on the depot campus in January 2021. It displays typical sleeping quarters (4 feet by 8 feet) for circus performers, a facsimile of Mr. Gebel-Williams’ living room (he had an entire train car to himself), many posters and photos, and a miniature scale model of the Venice circus arena, hand-built by Bill Dovel in 2018.

The interior of the circus train.

The interior of the circus train.

Beloved Ringling clown Chuck Sidlow donated materials from his days on the circus train.

A large poster features students in Clown College, which was established in 1968 after the Feld brothers bought the circus. Circus train docent Beth Gehring said Feld opened the clowning school because “his clowns were getting so old that they could fall down — but not get up.”

The explosion of color inside the car is in stark contrast to the antique décor of the depot. A $50,000, 8-foot bronze statue of Gebel-Williams (by artist Ed Kasprowicz) and a train-themed playground in nearby Legacy Park complete the site.

Gehring noted that the circus, sans animals, will return to perform in Tampa in January. See www.ringling.com for tickets and information. The circus had previously ended its 146-year run in January 2017.

A cadet uniform from Kentucky Military Institute.

A cadet uniform from Kentucky Military Institute.

Before you visit the Historic Venice Train Depot and Circus Train, see www.veniceareahistoricalsociety.org to check days and times beforehand.

 

 

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