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Showmen's Rest: The Legendary Circus City in Hugo, Oklahoma

Updated on September 9, 2017
Urbane Chaos profile image

Eric Standridge is a freelance writer with an interest in history. His main focus is writing about Oklahoma.

The Day the Music Died

The clowns no longer laugh, the acrobats no longer soar, and the musicians no longer play. All is quiet under the big top, and yet, in immortal life, the circus lives on.

In Hugo, Oklahoma, in a place known as Showman’s Rest, the bones of great legendary circus performers lie in endless slumber, forever performing under the great timeless Big Top.

While those past performers lie in quiet slumber, the rest of the city celebrates their legendary past in a lively spectacle of clowns, elephants, and death defying stunts.

Visitors to Hugo, Oklahoma will find a rich spectacle of dazzling colors and dizzying performances. Children will watch with delight as performers practice their impossible feats of skill. Adults will be held spellbound as the show continues high overhead. It is a lively town full of history; a history that's more unique than any other town in Oklahoma.

Hugo, Oklahoma: Circus City, USA

Hugo, Oklahoma has been nationally known as a circus town since before the World War II. In 1937, inspired by his love for the big top, a local grocery store owner decided to do the unthinkable.

It was well known that the A1 G. Kelley-Miller Circus wintered in Mena, Arkansas during the time. Knowing this, Vernon Pratt, the store owner, decided to make the 80 mile drive from Hugo to Mena. Pratt, mustering every bit of courage he had, immediately set out to find the circus owner, Obert Miller. Pratt extended an invitation to Miller to bring his circus to Hugo, and much to his surprise, Obert agreed. In fact, Obert didn’t bring the circus to Hugo only for a single performance, but for good. The A1 G. Kelley-Miller Circus would become the first circus to call Hugo home, and a great many would follow.

Since 1937, more than 22 circuses have called Hugo home. Among those that have called “Circus City” home have been the famed Carson & Barnes, Stevens Bros., Cole & Walters, Don Karr, James Christy and Fairyland Circus. Recently, Culpepper & Merriweather Circus and Circus Chimera have joined that long list.

Because of the relatively level land, warm weather, and green grass, Hugo has remained one of the favorite spots in the United States for circuses to weather the winter months. Because of this, Hugo has been dubbed “Circus City”, and is currently home to three nationally known circuses: The Kelly-Miller Circus, the Culpepper & Merriweather Circus, and the Carson & Barnes Circus, the last traditional traveling three-ring big top circus in the country.

Towards the end of summer, the circus wagons roll through town as residents cheer them on. Strung across the main streets and hung from light posts are brightly colored banners welcoming the performers home. For those few short months in winter, Hugo officially becomes home to the second largest herd of elephants in the country. After a long trek across the United States, these legendary actors have finally come home, to Circus City, U.S.A.

Buffalo and a circus parade wagon, around 1915; Located in Oklahoma, town unknown
Buffalo and a circus parade wagon, around 1915; Located in Oklahoma, town unknown

Showmen’s Rest: Honoring those who have Gone Before

Most would not describe a cemetery as unusual, but unusual is an apt description of a most peculiar place in Mount Olivet Cemetery. Sectioned off by four granite posts topped with elephant statues, Showmen’s Rest is one of only two cemeteries in the country dedicated to circus performers.

After the death of his brother, Kelly Miller, in 1961, D.R. Miller bought all of the plots in a large section of Mount Olivet Cemetery. These plots were bought in order to honor circus performers, then and in the future.

At the front of this section, there is a huge monument topped by a dancing elephant. Under the elephant, an inscription reads, “A Tribute To All Showmen Under God’s Big Top.”

Scattered throughout the cemetery are little marble circus tents, carved elephants, clowns and high wire artistes, all hewn from stone.

One of the most remarkable gravestones is the one dedicated to Big John Strong. Entirely carved out of stone, it is a massive three-ring circus tent with Big John’s impressive figure etched into its face.

Other great performers buried at Showmen’s Rest are high wire artiste Huberto Weber, elephant trainer William H. Woodcock, and circus entrepreneur Jack Moore. There are many more performers buried here, including jugglers, clowns, animal tamers, trapeze artistes and musicians; far too many to mention.

Oklahoma Circus Parade, exact location unknown, 1915
Oklahoma Circus Parade, exact location unknown, 1915
Oklahoma Circus Parade, exact location unknown, 1915
Oklahoma Circus Parade, exact location unknown, 1915

Even though the clowns no longer laugh, the acrobats no longer soar, and the musicians no longer play, the legacy of their days under the big top lives on.  They will always be remembered as the great performers they were, for their lives were lived in magic, and throughout the still markers of Showmen's rest, their magic lives on.

Images from Showman's Rest in Hugo, Oklahoma

Markers found at Showmen's Rest in Hugo, Oklahoma.
Markers found at Showmen's Rest in Hugo, Oklahoma.
Markers found at Showmen's Rest in Hugo, Oklahoma.
Markers found at Showmen's Rest in Hugo, Oklahoma.
Markers found at Showmen's Rest in Hugo, Oklahoma.
Markers found at Showmen's Rest in Hugo, Oklahoma.
A
circus city hugo:
2694 E 2070 Rd, Hugo, OK 74743, USA

get directions

© 2010 Eric Standridge

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    • profile image

      Melissa 

      3 years ago

      This is such an interesting Hub. This sounds like the kind of place that my family with teenagers would love to visit.

    • profile image

      Barbara 

      4 years ago

      When did the circus move from Hugo? And, where did they move?

    • Cathi Sutton profile image

      Cathi Sutton 

      5 years ago

      I started my first year of school in Hugo, and I remember the circus. I have been to the graveyard where so many circus people are buried, and it is, in fact, unique.

      Some time in the early 70s... I believe... a couple or three elephants got loose. They roamed the countryside for a few days or a few weeks, I can't remember which. I just remember not being allowed to play in the woods, and coon hunters and others out at night looking for the big animals. I remember stories of "so and so" having them come through and tearing up their garden. Or a different somebody noticing leaves striped off certain trees.

      Everyone in the county was elephant crazy for awhile. It was on the radio, and I hoped so hard to see one of them myself. No one was hurt, and I can't help but believe those elephants had the time of their lives roaming free and easy in Southeastern Oklahoma for that short time.

      P.S. Hugo also has a Bluegrass festival every year. I actually saw a guy play a jackass jawbone there once! A percusion instrument!

    • profile image

      maggie 

      6 years ago

      I love the Circus !!!! It should come to minnesota more often

    • Urbane Chaos profile imageAUTHOR

      Eric Standridge 

      8 years ago from Wister, Oklahoma

      I think the last time that I went, well, I must have been five or so.. All I remember about it was being scared to death of the elephants - and now, I'd love to go again, if I could ever get the time.

    • Pamela99 profile image

      Pamela Oglesby 

      8 years ago from Sunny Florida

      I remember loving the circus when I was young but I haven't been in a long time. Nice hub.

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