A World Apart
Showmen’s Rest the final stop for circus performers
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?
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.”
Elephants mark the corners of Showmen’s Rest, a section of Mount Olivet Cemetery in Hugo, Okla., created and reserved for circus performers.
Dudley Warner Hamilton’s days be circus days.” monument bears the words “May all your
The back of a wagon-wheel monument for Ted Bowman reads “Nothing Left But Empty Popcorn Sacks and Wagon Tracks.”