Mimi Cirbusova and Andrea Knies talk about dead people as though they’re alive because to them, they kind of still are. The pair reanimate historic local figures through the places they visit and the stories on their popular walking tours.
Brimming with movers and shakers who dared to tame the area before air conditioning and paved the way for today, there’s no shortage of characters and events to pull from. “We don’t want people to remember dates and timelines, but to remember the people’s experiences,” Cirbusova says.
That’s what participants will discover during their walking tours, born of the pair’s shared love of local history. In 2018, that led to the creation of Compass Rose History Experiences. Compass Rose is a storytelling project that presents the past in a conversational way that, before the organized tours, riveted the duo's friends at happy hour.
“We’d be out with friends and start conversing about history stuff and everyone would quiet down to listen,” Cirbusova, 35, says. Knies, 41, asked them, “Wait, would you pay for this?” and the answer was always "yes."
"For us, it’s just so much fun and we saw other people value it, too,” Cirbusova says.
Compass Rose's “1926 Sarasota” tour, which covers Palm and Pineapple avenues, looks at the boom and bust of the Roaring '20s in Sarasota, which saw unfettered development. Lavish at the time, hotels like John Ringling’s El Vernona and Charles Ringling's Sarasota Terrace Hotel opened. There were also the Mira Mar plaza and the American National Bank building, later known as the Orange Blossom Hotel—not to mention the many churches that popped up. That year also saw the completion of the John Ringling Bridge and the beginning of construction of the Sarasota County Courthouse. (Yes, you’re allowed to make parallels with today’s fast and furious development.)
As for the boom and bust tour concept, it also came with a dash of magic, not unlike the pair's penchant for reanimating the dead. “We saw omens of $19.26 on receipts. The idea just chased us,” Cirbusova says.
“We visit buildings you see all the time and know the name of, but maybe you don’t know the stories of why they’re still standing,” says Knies. “We look at the ‘why?’”
The other historic Compass Rose History Experiences walking tour could be considered a “Part 2," of sorts. Called “Resilience,” this tour looks at the road to recovery during the post-Great Depression and World War II years of the 1930s and '40s.
“So often, people only think of the terrible events during this time, but the community came together in beautiful ways," Cirbusova says. "The Kress building on Main Street went up during the Depression and it created jobs at the time and was very exciting for residents. The Wilson building on Orange Avenue was being used as a Red Cross run by Mrs. Van Wezel who led the volunteer efforts there. They would do blood drives, and get supplies to ship overseas. The 'Knit Your Bit' campaign called on the public to knit socks and scarves for the troops."
When possible, the two history buffs use primary sources like old newspapers, census records, letters and probate records. In the case of populations of the community that were purposely left out of the record, like minorities, they rely more on cemeteries and oral histories.
Knies, who moved to the area in 2014, says, “I’ve always found it important to know who stood here before me. I got into local history immediately, kind of like knowing where your go-to grocery store is when you move to a new neighborhood.”
The tours are capped at 20 people, to keep the experience intimate and safe, but if you can’t make it, step back in time on your own watch with Compass Rose History Experiences podcasts called “Navigating History,” which dive deep into local history and show that reality is truly stranger than fiction.
Tickets for one tour are $20 or $30 for both and happen once a month through April. Tours meet at Five Points Park in Downtown Sarasota, span less than one mile, and last 75 to 90 minutes. All tours begin at 3:30 pm. To buy tickets, click here.