An Afternoon With the Showmen

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HUGO, OKLA. — Under a cloudless sky, enduring temperatures resembling late August rather than early October, I walked among the tombstones in this modest town 10 miles north of the Red River. This is the Showmen’s Rest, part of the city cemetery. Here lie, among a few hundred others:

  • Big John: “The Man With More Friends Than Santa Claus.”
  • Donnie and Jone MCintosh: Circus, Fairs, Carnivals, Rodeos, Street Corners. “We Had the Good Life But the Season Ended.”
  • John August Strong, with a larger-than-life etching on a pillar celebrating his years operating the Big Strong John Circus. Strong was inducted into the International Circus Hall of Fame in 1992.
  • Terry Fenne, the “Mud Show Elephant Man,” whose tombstone is a polished stone bent that beckons, “Have A Seat on Me.” He worked elephants for a half-dozen circuses over the years.
  • Herbert Weber, known as “The Great Huberto,” has an engraved image of him walking a tightrope while holding what appears to be a parasol.
  • Ted Bowman’s marker is in the shape of a circus wagon wheel, below which it reads: “There’s nothing left but empty popcorn sacks and wagon tracks — the circus is gone.”
  • A recently dug grave, still in a mound, holds the remains of Katherine Thorpe, who died in late September at 90. Her husband, Edward, joined Showmen’s Rest in 1990. I assume he was the circus performer.

Hugo has been the winter home for circuses for nearly 80 years. More than 20 circus companies have poled their tents here over the decades. Three circuses — Carson & Barnes, Kelly Miller, and Culpepper & Merriweather — still winter in Hugo, their owners living in expansive compounds on the outskirts of town, on which RVs and motor homes are parked. Carson & Barnes happened to be setting up in my hometown of Longview while I was in Hugo.

Showmen’s Rest is set off from the rest of the cemetery by granite posts with a statue of an elephant on each. Mature trees cast shade and respite from the Indian summer. I was the only visitor on this afternoon.

Several showmens-rest-elephantother cemeteries across the country serve as the final resting places for circus showmen — what they call themselves. The Showmen’s Rest in Forest Park, Ill., was started in 1918 after a horrific train wreck killed 56 performers with the Hagenback-Wallace Circus, according to the Showmen’s League’s website. The circus only missed one performance — the city they were heading to when the wreck occurred. Miraculously, no animals died in the wreck. More than 750 showmen and their spouses are buried there. Other Showmen’s Rest are located in Miami and Tampa.

Hugo is also home to the second-largest endangered elephant sanctuary in America. The Endangered Ark Foundation is home to eight female and three male elephants. The youngest, Dori Marie, is just a year old, while Susie, the matriarch of the herd, is 63. Tours are held on Friday and Saturday mornings and for special events, such as Dori Marie’s birthday party in August. Being Thursday, from just outside the gate I caught a glimpse of a couple of these magnificent creatures. The foundation is striving to preserve and increase the number of elephants, a worthy goal.

I admit not being fond of circuses. I admire the skills of the trapeze and high-wire artists, the jugglers and unicycle riders. I have never liked clowns (long before the latest, bizarre “evil clown” craze) and feel squeamish when the lions, tigers and elephants do their tricks. Most circuses treat their animals well, I figure, given the investment in them is considerable. It would be poor business to mistreat an elephant that is worth a few hundred thousand dollars. But these creatures are being forced to perform acts never done in the wild, and I do not want to watch that. So you will not find me at a circus.

But I still enjoyed my afternoon in Showmen’s Rest, among the ghosts of colorful women and men who performed under a Big Top.


In the city part of the cemetery, the legendary bull rider Freckles Brown is buried. He died at 66 in 1987 and is renowned for his skill and bravery. About 20 feet away is the tombstone of Lane Frost, who was gored by a bull in Cheyenne Wyoming two years later and died at 25. The 1994 film “8 Seconds” is a docudrama of his life. Brown was Frost’s mentor and friend, and reportedly asked to be buried near his buddy.

A weathered baseball, a pair of leather gloves and a couple of cow bells sit on Frost’s marker. It reads “A Champion in Life.”

It was an interesting afternoon.

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