Most of us, when picturing central Florida, think of theme parks and tourists. But if you drive a little off the beaten track, you’ll find small towns and forests, citrus groves that stretch between the many lakes that dot the landscape. . .and maybe even some magic that doesn’t involve a certain mouse.
Over 150 years ago, a man named Gravis King first gazed upon the untouched land that lay somewhere between the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico. The railroad hadn’t quite reached this part of the country yet; King was on horseback when he first picked his way down a dirt trail through pine and palm trees. It looked wild, rough. A lesser man might have turned back and searched among the most hospitable coastal towns.
But Gravis was not a lesser man. He had spent the last decade leading an eccentric group of performers around the country entertaining crowds. King Carnival was the most famous traveling band of misfits in the South.
Times were changing, though. A new religious fervor was rising, and the hamlets that had welcomed King Carnival for years now turned them away. They might have considered most of these troupes harmless, but there was just something. . .different. . about King and his people.
For one thing, the men and women in King’s little carnie family were just a little too good at what they did. People who saw the performers came away unsettled, as though they’d lost chunks of time, done things that were completely out of character.
And then there was Sarah. The fortuneteller was the star of the show. She was beautiful in an exotic way, and there were whispers that Gravis King had rescued her from some great peril in the mountains of Romania. Whatever the truth, Sarah was intensely loyal to King. Her tent was the most popular spot at the carnival at every stop, as her predictions were uncannily accurate.
It was what happened at night, after the carnival closed, that eventually caused the trouble. Men who had visited Sarah’s tent during the day, with their families, often crept back at night, summoned by her beauty and mystery. Sarah claimed that she only gave these men advice and her own secret homegrown remedies, but the women scoffed at that. Their agitation and indignation led more and more villages to ban King Carnival.
And that was why Gravis King found himself sitting the middle of Florida, looking for a large patch of land. He had an idea that this might be it, the perfect spot to make a new home for his large and unusual family.
Within the next six months, the King Carnival no longer existed. Instead, the men and women who had a year before dazzled audiences now cleared land and built houses. They laid out a town, a place where they could live together in peace.
Over the ensuing years, King grew. People beyond the original carnival folk began moving into town. King lived long enough to see his town flourish as well as to make sure that the carnie families would always control the destiny of their unique community. His charter, which assigned power and ownership to his people and their descendants, can still be seen on display in Town Hall.
Most of the people who live in King today treat their history with an indulgent whimsy. They use the old stories to draw tourists to the town, bringing in much-needed revenue. Some of the descendants of the carnie families have businesses that play on their ancestors’ talents.
But there is another element as well. . .women and men who still ply the family trade in a less obvious way. Nobody talks about it, but every once in a while, something odd happens. A circle is burned into the ground in the forest. Kids run home to report seeing a group of women chanting around a roaring fire. In any conflict between an original family and one of the newcomers, it’s the newer resident who loses. People who have lived in King for any length of time understand this reality.
Still, King is a lovely little town. You should come down for a visit. Stay in the Bearded Lady, a bed and breakfast run by that performer’s great-great grandchildren. Eat at the Sword Swallower, an exclusive restaurant owned by–well, you get the picture.
Just be careful of what questions you ask. And don’t go wandering in the woods after dark.