Showman's Rest and Bull Rider's Reprieve
Nestled between Interstates 30, 40 and 44, Hugo, Oklahoma is the termination point for The Indian Nation Turnpike. Hugo is also the termination point for a goodly number of circus folk. The town, once known as Circus City, USA, is winter headquarters for two different shows: Kelly-Miller and Carson and Barnes. Those who do not rise to make the next spring's journey are laid under in Mt. Olivet Cemetery's designated Showmen's Rest.
The rectangular area is marked off by granite posts, each topped by a small elephant statue. In the center is a large headstone with a carving of a performing elephant up on two feet. Underneath is etched "A Tribute To All Showmen Under God's Big Top."
Many of those buried are named Miller, including the founder of Kelly-Miller, Obert, into whose gravestone is etched the main entrance of a circus, including the ticket booth. Miller's son, the late D.R., started Carson and Barnes ("There was never a Carson or Barnes. We chose the names because they sound good together."). He is buried under a headstone with the entrance gates to his winter home shown, along with the motto, "Dun Rovin."
John Carroll was an elephant trainer for 35 years -- he is portrayed standing on the head of one, while Jack B. Moore's headstone is actually carved into a model of a Big Top tent. The headstone of the "Tall Grass Showman," Ringmaster John Strong, is nine feet high, and shows a life-sized Strong in full top hat getup. A wagon-wheel monument for Ted Bowman reads, on the back, "Nothing Left But Empty Popcorn Sacks and Wagon Tracks."
Before leaving, we ask the caretaker if anyone else of note is buried at Mt. Olivet. "Why, yes," we are told. "Three world champion rodeo cowboys, the original Marlboro Man, and the Buster Brown midget." Whew! What's in the water here?
Buster Brown got our full attention, because not long ago, we made the trek to see the Missouri grave of Major Ray, the midget we thought was THE Buster Brown. Now it turns out, Ray was just the first of more than 20 midgets hired by The Brown Shoe Company to dress up in Little Lord Fauntleroy getups and portray the five-year-old boy comic strip character. Wm. Edmond Ansley, buried in Hugo, was another one (As was the still living, former Munchkin, Jerry Maren). Ansley portrayed the character for 27 years, and when he died in 1972 of a heart attack, his obituary appeared in The New York Times.
The first bull riding maestro laid to rest here was "Daddy" Whatley, the R.C.A. All Around Cowboy of 1947, and the Bull Riding Champ of 1953. He was shot to death in 1966.
Next came the legendary Freckles Brown, who rode "Tornado, The Unrideable Bull," in 1967 in Oklahoma City. A small marble slab depicting "Freckles On Tornado" lays at the foot of the grave, with a fresh cut orchid placed beside. Brown's headstone is carved on both sides, with a replica of his 1962 World's Champion Bull Rider belt buckle on the front, and on the back a poem ("He was a small man, But he had a big hand") and list of his other accomplishments, including service as a Chinese Parachutist and time as a member of the O.S.S.
Young Lane Frost always wanted to be buried next to Freckles, and when a bull killed him in 1989, at age 25, he was. Frost was the 1987 World Bull Riding Champ, and a slab with "Lane Frost On Red Rock" sits by his grave. Gifts left include a Precious Moments figurine, and an American flag bandanna is tied around a marble urn filled with flowers. The urn reads, "Lane Wasn't Perfect, But He Knew Jesus."
"The Marlboro Man" is carved into the gravestone of Max Bryan "Turk" Robinson, underneath a facsimile of his certification as a member of the Professional Rodeo Cowboys Association. But Turk is not dead yet. We are assured by the caretaker that Turk was the first Marlboro Man, and contrary to the urban legends, is still very much alive.
Not far from the cemetery, on Kirk Road, is the actual winter home of the circuses. Circus City once hosted some fifteen different shows, and the off season setup now is much smaller. Still, in the summer you can see various circus wagons and tractor trailers out in the yards, and in the winter, the second largest herd of elephants in the country rests up for the next season.