By Dave Ellison
About a leisurely two-hour drive from Big Sandy is one of the most unusual destinations in the United States – and a fascinating setting for a family Halloween excursion.
The site teems with invisible clowns and fire-eaters whose torches have been forever extinguished. Within its boundaries reside lion-tamers no longer imperiled by wedging their heads into the powerful jaws of snarling giant cats. Counted, too, among the many other occupants are once-daring acrobats who never again will demonstrate their risky feats of flying through the air with the greatest of ease.
These individuals, in addition to their whereabouts, share at least two other common bonds. . . All are people of the circus – roustabouts, ticket takers, prima donna entertainers, flamboyant owners and more. And all are dead.
Their final earthly repose is a dedicated, spacious section of Mount Olivet Cemetery in the little town of Hugo, Okla., about 25 miles north of Paris, Texas. Aptly named “Showmen’s Rest,” the sacred ground is graced by a huge entry monument topped by a dancing elephant and containing the inscription “A Tribute To All Showman Under God’s Big Top.”
Since the 1930s, Hugo – population about 5,300 – has been a popular but relatively inconspicuous winter headquarters for travelling circuses, earning for itself the nickname “Circus Town, USA.” Throughout the years, more than 22 circuses have called Hugo home.
The town also houses the Endangered Ark Foundation, a retirement ranch for circus elephants open to the public but requiring reservations. Many performers live in the area and during the off-season are often seen in their yards practicing various routines.
Established in 1961, Hugo’s Showmen’s Rest cemetery is one of four similar burial grounds in the United States. The oldest, created in 1916 in Forest Park, Ill., contains the remains of 86 circus employees killed in 1918 in Ivanhoe, Ind., when their 26-car train was accidentally struck by any empty World War I troop train. Oddly, no animals were killed or injured in the mishap. Other circus cemeteries are in Miami and Tampa, Fla.
Like at its sister gravesites, the Showmen’s Rest Cemetery in Hugo is replete with a collection of remarkable tombstones, most with circus-themed designs and descriptive etchings. Particularly compelling are the artistic markers of Ringmaster John Strong, “the man with more friends than Santa Claus” and tightrope walker “The Great Huberto.”
Other spellbinding memorials are those of Zefta Loyal, “Queen of the bareback riders”; snake charmer Frances Loder; “Popcorn the Clown”; and circus owner Jack B. Moore, a Marshall, Texas native who rests under a stone shaped exactly like a Big Top tent. Inscribed on the granite monument for “Showman” James Zajicak are “We actually live the life that most people only dream of.”
Outside Showmen’s Rest but still in Mount Olivet Cemetery are the burial sites of Edmond Ansley and Lane Frost. Ansley was a 4-foot 2-inch midget known as the immensely popular Buster Brown, who with his dog Tige toured the nation for several decades, promoting the Brown Shoe Co. Frost was a champion bull rider who, at 25 years of age, was killed at a 1989 Cheyenne, Wyo., rodeo by a bull named “Takin’ Care of Business.”
Today, the luster of the circus (for years, second in popularity only to Christmas) has eroded significantly from its halcyon days, the victim of well-intentioned animal-welfare activists along with a variety of high-tech gadgets that now dominate so many of the waking hours of young men and women.
Still, though, standing amid the captivating tombstones of Showmen’s Rest, a visitor with a vivid imagination can shut his or her eyes and perhaps hear lively music bellowing from a colorful horse-drawn calliope; detect the sweet smell of fresh sawdust mingling with the tantalizing aromas of hot popcorn and roasted peanuts; and feel the kind of musty yet vitalizing breeze often wafting beneath the canvas confines of a Big Top tent.
And perhaps the most imaginative and luckiest of Showmen’s Rest visitors will somehow retrieve a lost memory and again listen as a distinguished-looking, red-coated ringmaster, illuminated by a powerful spotlight, gazes intently and silently toward his mesmerized audience. Suddenly, this commanding but fanciful presence – wearing a top hat and wielding a long whip or white-tipped baton or megaphone, his arms outstretched – excitedly exclaims, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, direct your attention to the center ring, where you are about to witness an astonishing, stupendous, tremendous, death-defying exhibition of …”
Then, abruptly, the reverie vanishes as quickly as it began, merely the figment of a glorious dream, an echo of past childhood. But the visitor, upon departing this serene sanctuary in a little town just across the Texas border, feels humbly grateful for such a delightful sojourn.