Since the 1930s, Hugo in southeast Oklahoma has been a popular winter headquarters for traveling circuses, earning the nickname “Circus Town, USA.”
Although many circuses have rested in Hugo, its current winter denizens are Carson & Barnes Circus and its sister circus, Kelly Miller. When Kelly died in 1960, his brother D.R. Miller purchased a section in the town cemetery to memorialize him and other circus performers.
Marked by elephant topped monuments, the Showmen’s Rest section in Hugo’s Mount Olivet Cemetery holds tributes to “all showmen under God’s big top,” from animal trainers to jugglers to high wire artists. The life-size grave of Ringmaster John Strong wearing a top hat designates him as ”the man with more friends than Santa Claus” and Zefta Loyal still celebrates her title as the “Queen of Bareback Riders.”
Elephant trainers Ted Svertesky, who perished in a circus train wreck, and John Carroll, who was crushed by one of his animals, both have graves decorated with pachyderms. While most of the performers chose epitaphs that grandly immortalized their talents, circus manager and cemetery founder D.R. Miller’s grave says simply: “Dun Rovin.”
The Mount Olivet Cemetery also has the Bull Rider’s Reprieve section, with the graves of rodeo stars Freckles Brown, who was the first to ride the wild bull Tornado, and Lane Frost, a young champion bull rider who was gored during a performance.
The vitality captured in granite at the cemetery is still alive and breathing in Hugo, where practicing performers set up trapeze swings in their front yards or park circus trailers in their driveways, and a herd of elephants always roams at the Endangered Ark Foundation.
Know Before You Go
Located off of Eighth Street on the south side of Hugo.
- "Oklahoma Curiosities" by PJ Lassek