Are you ready for more stories from Showmen’s Rest? I hope so because I’ve got plenty of them.
It’s been fun to look at these pictures again. When I took them, I was not inclined to linger because we had a schedule to keep and another cemetery to visit in Dekalb, Texas before we made it to Texarkana that evening. I knew I could look at them later. I just didn’t reckon on it being four years later.
One marker I’d forgotten about is for John “Dutch” Narfski. Unlike many of the stones I saw that featured elephants, Dutch’s small marker was different. His features a hippo!
Dutch Narfski was born in Poland in 1888, far from the American circus ring. I found a 1948 Daily Oklahoman newspaper article that filled in some of the blanks about his life. Dutch got into the circus world when he left Poland for Mexico in 1902 (which would have made him about 14) with the Hagenback Animal Show, headquartered in Hamburg, Germany at the time.
The article detailed the different diets of the animals Dutch cared for and his theories on training. He said, “There’s no such thing as a trained wild animal. You can train them, but you can never be certain that they stay tamed. That’s why they are caged.” He was said to have the scars to prove that experience.
Dutch worked for various circuses and shows over the years, and spent time with trainer Leo Blondin at Chicago’s Lincoln Park Zoo. By 1948, he’d made his home with the Al G. Kelly and Miller Bros. Circus. The article noted that “lions, tigers, leopards, and the hippo” were his favorites. The Miller circus had just added the hippo that I believe is on Dutch’s grave marker, who was called Miss Oklahoma.
Dutch retired shortly before he died. He passed away on Jan. 29, 1966 in Hugo at the age of 77.
Heart of Showmen’s Rest
Last week, I mentioned that John Carroll was truly instrumental in making Showmen’s Rest at Mount Olivet Cemetery possible because of his love for the circus and the people whom he worked with for many years. I thought I’d missed photographing his marker but it turns out I was wrong. Here it is.
From what I’ve read, it was John who worked to make sure any circus person who needed a final resting place would have one at Showmen’s Rest. You can see an indication of that on some of the markers.
Swain and Snooks
Missouri native Kennedy Swain is reported to have been a child of show business. He performed in vaudeville and the stage, and he was a comedian in Plunkett’s Variety Show.
The World War II U.S. Air Force veteran worked as a sideshow manager for the Al G. Kelly and Miller Brothers Circus He was also an announcer for the Carson and Barnes Circus. In later years, he worked for the Daily Brothers Circus of Gonzalez, Texas.
Kennedy died of cancer in Texas on Aug. 16, 1974. His stone was paid for by John Carroll’s Fund.
Kennedy’s wife Zenda “Snooks” Plunkett Swain was a member of the Plunkett family, and a drummer in the circus band. Their son, Bill, followed them into the business as well. He became part owner of the Daily Brothers Circus.
Zenda died on May 28, 1990. She is buried beside Kennedy.
The Elephant Men
Born in 1940 in Zincville, Okla., Donnie Charles Carr worked for Carson and Barnes Circus from his teens. He worked with various animals but he became known as the “Elephant Man”. His large marker is a testament to that work.
Then there’s Terry Fenne, who has a bench to mark his grave that invites guest to “Have A Seat On Me”. Not only does if feature Terry with one of his elephants, it is embossed with the emblems of the circuses he worked for. Beneath the bench is a little elephant statue. He was known as the “Mud Show Elephant Man”.
Kathleen Maca, a fellow taphophile, wrote some detailed posts about Showmen’s Rest. Her site included the following information about Terry. I encourage you to visit her site because it’s a great resource.
Fenne literally ran away from his home in Madison, Wisc. to join the circus at age 14. He worked for six different circuses including: Fisher Brothers Circus, Circus Genoa, Clyde Beatty-Cole Brothers Circus, Roberts Brothers Circus, Kelly-Miller Circus and Carson & Barnes Circus.
Known as the “Mud Show Elephant Man”, he trained elephants and drove the elephant truck across the country for many years. The last few years of his life, he operated an umbrella hot dog pushcart in downtown Paris, Texas, and became a fixture of the town.
Terry died at age 56 on June 14, 2006.
Theodore “Ted” Svertesky loved elephants from boyhood. Born in Connecticut in 1954, he ran away to join the circus at age 14 but was returned to his parents. Yet Ted would not be deterred. He returned to the circus at age 17 and never left.
Ted knew he had a prime opportunity to learn from the best and did all he could to do just that, looking to Buckles Woodcock and Fred Logan for their wisdom. His career soared and by 1994, Ted was presenting the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey Circus elephant act in the show.
On Jan. 13, 1994, the Ringling show opened in Tampa, Fla. before heading to St Peterburg, then leaving for Orlando. At 9:08 a.m, due to a broken wheel, 16 cars of their train derailed of which five cars turned on their side. Two people were killed that day, Ceslee Conkling, a 28-year-old circus clown, and 39-year-old Ted Svertesky.
Lastly, let’s visit the grave of Kenneth Ray “Turtle” Benson. Ken wasn’t one for the spotlight. He was thorough and some said, not exactly a fast mover around the big top until showtime. Thus, he earned the nickname of Turtle. Born in Chippewa County, Minn in 1945, he had no interest in being a star. For Ken, it was all about the elephants.
The poem on his marker was written by a friend, John Herriott. You can read the entire poem in the photo below. I especially liked these lines:
He didn’t have a fancy wardrobe
And never pretended to be a Knave.
In fact, he always looked like he needed a shave.
But a Showman he is for season after season
Because it was the way of life he loved
That had to be the reason.
Kenny died on Nov. 16, 2001 at age 56. Kathleen Maca’s site says he spent his last years with Roberts Bros. Circus.
Still hungry for some circus stories? Don’t worry, I’ve got more coming in Part III.