I’ve been eagerly awaiting the day when I would write about Showmen’s Rest, which is part of Mount Olivet Cemetery in Hugo, Okla. It was my goal to wait until I got to this point in the 2019 road trip to do so. There’s so much history to this special place that I want to give it the time and attention it deserves.

For those following along on a map, Hugo is about 3.5 hours southeast of Lawton.

First, I want to point out that there are other cemeteries where circus folk are buried. There’s a Showmen’s Rest within Forest Park, Ill.’s Woodlawn Cemetery. I visited that one in 2015 when we were in Chicago for the 200th anniversary of the S.S. Eastland disaster. One of Chris’ cousins is buried at Woodlawn. There’s also a Showmen’s Rest in Tampa, Fla.

Showmen’s Rest is located within Mount Olivet Cemetery in Hugo, Okla.

The Showmen’s League of America was formed in 1913 with Buffalo Bill Cody as its first president. The organization purchased the land at Woodlawn in part because of a 1918 circus train wreck that killed an estimated 60 people. Other circus performers have been buried there over the years since then.

Circus City, USA

Hugo became known as Circus City, USA around the 1930s. Many circuses chose to settle in Hugo during the off season and later, many circus folk chose to retire there because they felt at home. Many circus people still live there today. Carson and Barnes Circus is still performing today and winters in Hugo.

Showmen’s Rest in Hugo became a burial place for circus folk around 1960.

Several people have written about how Hugo’s Showmen’s Rest got started. The best explanation I could find came from a Library of Congress blog’s 2018 article by Stephen Winick called “Everybody Works: Documenting Circus Life in Hugo, Oklahoma”.

Since 1960, showmen and women from around the country, not just Hugo, are memorialized at Showmen’s Rest at the Mount Olivet Cemetery. While Hugo circus legend D.R. Miller was responsible for purchasing a large section of plots for the purposes of developing Showmen’s Rest, a man by the name of John Carroll who worked for Carson and Barnes Circus his entire adult life, is also to thank for it. A drifter, he joined the circus as a teenager and remained with the Hugo-based show until his death in 1960. According to D.R. Miller’s daughter, Barbara Miller Byrd, Carroll left a sum of money to Miller, and Miller then developed the idea of Showmen’s Rest.

Undated poster for the Al G. Kelly & Miller Bros. Circus. (Photo Source: Redlandscommunitynews.com)

Dores R. Miller (mentioned above as D.R.) and Kelly Miller were the sons of Obert Miller (1886-1969), who started the family circus in 1937. The brothers’ mother, Jennie Williams Miller, died in 1929. Obert had been a vaudeville and circus performer before that. D.R. and Kelly were his partners in running Al G. Miller and Miller Brothers Circus. D.R. actually performed as a tight rope walker in his younger days.

Eventually, Kelly sold his share of the business to D.R. in 1958, just two years before he died in 1960 at age 46. At the top of his marker are two pouncing tigers with the words “Dun Rovin” between them.

Kelly Miller died in 1960 at age 46. His wife, Dale, lived another 24 years.

Obert Miller died in 1969 at age 83. His marker has the entrance of a theater on it with drama masks.

Obert Keller started in vaudeville in the 1920s before becoming a circus owner in the 1930s.

D.R. Miller lived to the age of 83, dying in 1999. On the front, his grave looks much like his brother Kelly’s.

D.R. Miller’s wife, Isla, preceded him in death by less than a year.

On the back, you can see elephants and a circus tent. D.R. and Jack B. Moore formed a partnership in 1953. Moore had operated the Tex Carson Circus. D.R. leased from Moore tents, equipment and an elephant named Mabel to the show, which later became the Carson and Barnes Circus. You can see the words “Carson and Barnes” on the back of one of the elephants on the marker.

The back side of D.R. and Isla Miller’s marker features elephants.

On the Flying Trapeze

One of my favorite markers is for Grace McFarland, who spent much of her career flying high on the trapeze. She worked with several circuses over the course of her career.

Grace McFarland was also a bareback rider.

Grace Lillian Sykes was born July 25, 1915 in Canada. She was a trapeze artist, aerialist, and bareback rider traveling with Ringling Brothers, Clyde Beatty, James M. Cole, Shine Circus and Tom Mix. She was also the producer of her own show, which was M&M International Circus. Grace’s first husband was Davey McIntosh. After he died, she married Walter “Mac” McFarland.

Grace spent the last 30 years of her life in Hugo, Okla. and died there on Oct. 28, 2016 at age 101.

Grace McFarland lived her last 30 years in Hugo, Okla.

“To Each His Own”

Another one of my favorite markers is for Frances Stokes Loter Padilla. Her marker includes a picture of her handling snakes, one of her many talents. As a girl, she learned fancy rope spinning and practiced doing a contortion routine while balancing a glass of water on her head. WOW!

Frances Loter Padilla is pictured with her many snakes.

After marrying Dick Loter, Frances had seven children who learned to work the shows at young ages. Five of them dropped out of the business, reappearing in tents once in a while to sell novelties and concessions. They worked primarily for the Tex Carson Circus.

The names of Frances’ children, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and great-great-grandchildren are on the back of her marker.

Frances died in 2003 at age 78.

Chimp Trainer

Bonnie “Jean” Warner’s stone features a photo of her with a chimpanzee. A native of Terra Haunte, Ind., she worked with a number of circuses over the years, including James M. Cole and the Kelly and Miller Circuses. I found a number of pictures of her on Ancestry with her chimps, but she also like to ride a unicycle with the clowns.

Jean is pictured with chimps (right to left) Mitzi, Mr. Mike, and Memo. (Photo Source: Ancestry.com)

I don’t know what year Jean decided to retire, but her last years were spent in Myrtle Beach, S.C. with her husband, Norman. They owned a locksmith shop there. She died on Nov. 6, 1998. Her marker indicates she was born in 1923, making her 75. But her obituary has her birth year as 1933.

Bonnie “Jean” Warner loved working with her chimps.

One Dog and One Pony

One of the tallest markers at Showmen’s Rest is for John “Big John” Strong, founder and owner of the Big John Circus. John started it in Hollywood, Calif. 1948 with his wife, Ruth. “He always wanted to have a circus,” she said. “It was, I think, in his blood.”

“It started with one dog and one pony,” Ruth’s son John Jr. said. Ruth trained the animals, and the young couple took their show on the road. At their winter quarters, elephants grazed under oak trees and Ruth continued to train about 50 animals.

Big John Strong loved the circus life but he also loved people, his family says. (Photo Source: thecircusblog.com)

“It was love and discipline in equal measure,” said daughter Linda, who began riding elephants when she was four.

Ruth knew she wanted to raise her children in the circus. “It was a healthy life,” she said. “Traveling was good for them and meeting different people was very good for them.

John “Big John” Strong was truly larger than life.

John’s marker says a lot about him. At 6′ 5″, he loved stepping into to the circus ring, donning tails and a top hat that made him appear even taller. But he also loved people, Linda said.

“He knew so many people all over the country and he never forgot anybody’s name,” she said. “That’s kind of how he became known as ‘The man with more friends than Santa Claus,’ which he had printed on the sides of his trucks. It became his motto.”

John died on Jan. 6, 1992 at age 71.

There are more stories to share from Showmen’s Rest in Part II.

Jack B. Moore (1919-1969) established the Tex Carson Circus with his wife, Angela. Later, he would partner with D.R. Miller to form the Carson and Miller Circus.