A World Apart

Show­men’s Rest the fi­nal stop for cir­cus per­form­ers

Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette - - PROFILES - BECCA MARTIN-BROWN Becca Martin-Brown is an award-win­ning columnist and Fea­tures ed­i­tor for the North­west Arkansas Demo­crat-Gazette. She can be reached at bmartin@ nwadg.com.

Not ev­ery­one stops at ceme­ter­ies. I re­al­ize that. Cer­tainly not ev­ery­one in­cludes a ceme­tery as a des­ti­na­tion.

But I got wildly ex­cited when I found out we would be stop­ping overnight in Hugo, Okla., on the way to meet a new baby in the fam­ily. I knew it was home to Show­men’s Rest, a sec­tion of the Mount Olivet Ceme­tery re­served for cir­cus per­form­ers.

For many, many years, Hugo — pop­u­la­tion roughly 5,000, just 9 miles north of the Texas line — has been the win­ter home for the Kelly-Miller and Car­son & Barnes cir­cuses and more re­cently the Culpep­per & Mer­ri­weather Cir­cus. (We shall not di­gress into is­sues some peo­ple have with cir­cuses. This is about Show­men’s Rest, and we shall show proper re­spect for the ceme­tery. Thank you.) When an em­ployee of one of the cir­cuses gave $18,000 to his boss, D.R. Miller — sur­prised and be­mused — started the John Car­roll Fund and pur­chased a sec­tion of the Mount Olivet Ceme­tery. His in­ten­tion, ac­cord­ing to his daugh­ter, Bar­bara Byrd, was that cir­cus per­form­ers who didn’t have “roots” any­where could be buried to­gether, pay­ing if they could or us­ing the fund if they couldn’t.

Ac­cord­ing to a 2003 ar­ti­cle in Amer­i­can Pro­file, “Hugo’s tra­di­tion as a cir­cus com­mu­nity be­gan in 1942, when a town of­fi­cial en­ticed the Kelly-Miller Bros. Cir­cus across state lines from Mena, Ark., with an of­fer of free land, elec­tric­ity and wa­ter in ex­change for pub­lic ex­hi­bi­tions each Sun­day dur­ing the troupe’s off-sea­son stay in the town. The Miller fam­ily — Obert, his two sons, Kelly and D.R., and their wives — de­cided to take Hugo up on its propo­si­tion.”

The his­tory of the Car­son & Barnes Cir­cus ex­plains that “Obert Miller de­vel­oped a ‘dog and pony’ show in 1937 in Smith Cen­ter, Kan., which be­gan the fam­ily’s life­time of liv­ing and work­ing in the cir­cus. D.R. and Isla Miller were founders and co-own­ers of many cir­cuses for 62 years of their mar­riage and part­ner­ship.”

“My un­cle was ac­tu­ally the first to be buried” at Show­men’s Rest, says Byrd, D.R.’s daugh­ter who is now co-owner of Car­son & Barnes Cir­cus. “We’re al­most full up now” with more than 80 per­form­ers in­terred there and most of the re­main­ing plots re­served.

With so lit­tle room left, the John Car­roll Fund re­cently pur­chased a colum­bar­ium — who knew there was a word for that? — with 48 spa­ces for cre­mains. Byrd says that if enough of the spa­ces are sold, the money will go back to the fund to ac­quire an­other.

None of that mat­ters when you stop by the ceme­tery. It was a chilly, blus­tery spring morn­ing when we were there, and I didn’t linger nearly as long as I wish I had. But I was there plenty long enough to know that Show­men’s Rest has its own pe­cu­liar brand of magic, not as eerie as St. Louis No. 1 in New Or­leans — which does have a place re­served for Jack­son Square per­form­ers — but oth­er­worldly in its own way. When you step in­side the area marked by gran­ite posts topped by three-di­men­sional ele­phant sculp­tures, you are en­ter­ing a space you can never be a part of and never truly un­der­stand — as if old re­porters were all buried to­gether with type­writ­ers atop their graves.

John Car­roll — the founder of the ceme­tery fund — was an ele­phant trainer for 35 years and is por­trayed stand­ing on the head of one. The head­stone of the “Tall Grass Show­man,” ring­mas­ter John

Strong, stands big­ger than

I am and por­trays him in his full glory. The back of a wagon-wheel mon­u­ment for Ted Bow­man reads

“Noth­ing Left But Empty

Pop­corn Sacks and Wagon

Tracks.” And Pop­corn the clown — June 21, 1940 to June 30, 2012 — is re­mem­bered with a cane, hat and clown shoes and the words “Watch the Snake.”

He was a funny clown, re­mem­bers Byrd, who grew up in the cir­cus and re­mem­bers rid­ing her pony in the pa­rade un­der the Big Top. And isn’t that the point of ceme­ter­ies — to make sure mem­o­ries live on af­ter loved ones are gone?

Photo cour­tesy Becca Martin-Brown

Pop­corn the clown — June 21, 1940 to June 30, 2012 — is re­mem­bered with a cane, hat and clown shoes and the words “Watch the Snake.”

Photo cour­tesy Becca Martin-Brown

Ele­phants mark the cor­ners of Show­men’s Rest, a sec­tion of Mount Olivet Ceme­tery in Hugo, Okla., cre­ated and re­served for cir­cus per­form­ers.

Photo cour­tesy Becca Martin-Brown

Dud­ley Warner Hamil­ton’s days be cir­cus days.” mon­u­ment bears the words “May all your

Photo cour­tesy Becca Martin-Brown

The back of a wagon-wheel mon­u­ment for Ted Bow­man reads “Noth­ing Left But Empty Pop­corn Sacks and Wagon Tracks.”

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