When I was a child, I had a very clear idea what I wanted to do when I grew up: I wanted to join the circus.
No, not in the normal way children who go to the circus think it is wonderful and might fantasize about being a ringmaster, clown, or flying through the air with the trapeze for a day or two before they move on to dreams of being astronauts, cowboys, and whatever else. I mean I would spend hours using swing sets and monkey bars to practice the trapeze and tightrope and every animal in the area was fair game for practicing my lion and bear training skills. Over the years I was fed the practical line and told people didn’t really make a career of the circus and the idea slowly retreated to the back of my mind. Although, being the smarmy, quick-witted child I was, I’m surprised I didn’t argue the very valid point that most circus performers are adults and therefore must earn a living. And never mind that in lieu of sparkly, cotton candy scented circus dreams, my artistic abilities were always encouraged. As someone who would’ve starved had she not had other skills, I can assure you the circus would’ve been a simpler and more realistic career path than the struggle that is the life of a young starving artist. But I digress.
My love for all things circus has never waned. Like a child, I am mesmerized by sequin laden costumes, jesting clowns, high wire acts, and other feats of unusual talent. Although I very much love being able to create, some part of me still wishes I were performing under a big top.
It is therefore no surprise that when I moved to Oklahoma I brought with me the knowledge that there were at one time two towns in this state that served as winter homes for circus families, namely Edmond and Hugo. Sadly Edmond, which I live on the edge of, is no longer a winter haven for circuses with all those families having drifted away over the years. Hugo on the other hand has been home to twenty two circuses over the years and today is still home to three: Carson and Barnes, Kelly-Miller, and Cullpepper and Merriweather.
I have wanted to make a trip to Hugo for a while now.
After the opportunity to photograph some of those performers for an upcoming project arose, I was invited to a fundraiser dinner for a circus museum the town of Hugo plans to build. A good cause, a roadtrip, and circus? Of course I leapt at the opportunity.
So last Friday we drove to the southeast border near Texas, down in the Kiamichi, and spent the morning and afternoon wandering the town and researching the different families at the Hugo Library. The day was so beautiful you’d have hardly known it was winter but for the occasional bone chilling wind and the fresh remnants of the last ice storm, snapped and splintered limbs barely hanging or scattered at the base of every tree.
After a trip to the library and the old Santa Fe depot which now serves as a railroad museum with sections for Hugo and its history, we made our way to Mount Olivet Cemetery, an unusually lovely cemetery with its well-manicured landscape and wide array of particularly ornate and unique tombstones. I have a soft spot for the artistry behind cemetery and other memorial sculpture as well as the local history one can uncover by visiting any given area’s cemetery, but having lived in the home of beautiful necropolises New Orleans for so long, it is rare that I am impressed with the entire expanse of any given graveyard. Mount Olivet is different, perhaps because more than a quarter of its acreage is dedicated to its showmen’s rest.
The showmen monuments were wildly intriguing with each stone bearing evidence of that particular performer’s talent, some with intricate carvings and others with images of that particular performer. Each tombstone is decorated with the big top, tigers, lions, elephants, and other circus imagery. Some are actually shaped like tents or various animals. It was easily one of the most unique cemeteries I have ever visited.
If you happen to be a rodeo fan, the famous Lane Frost is also buried at Mount Olivet under a large rodeo buckle shaped marker. His mentor Freckles Brown is directly adjacent to him under a slightly less gaudy albeit equally sizeable stone.
While leaving we took our time glancing at the other sections. Perhaps because the showman’s rest sets such a high standard, the entire cemetery mimics the uniqueness and ornateness of the stones in the circus section making the entire expanse worth polite admiring.
Under the last of the sun set, we made the final rounds of the town enjoying the circus themed statuary and signs dotted throughout before heading to the International Red Nose Café dinner. The dinner was such a lovely outpouring of support from the area communities with a remarkable attendance from a wide variety of people.
Children and adults alike were enthralled by the antics of the clowns and juggling, balancing, and more from the other performers. Even a group of local children entertained with skills learned at local classes run by the circus families where they are taught everything from tightrope to clowning. I was in awe of all they had learned and could only imagine how enamored I would have been with such training had it been available to me when I was a child.
As we drove home in the dark, I caught myself smiling at the evening replaying in my head and I drifted off to sleep, contented as a child.
If you would like to support the efforts of the Hugo community in building their museum, a cookbook preserving recipes from members of the circus families (from which the menu options served at the dinner were taken) is available here with proceeds benefiting their efforts. Of course donations are also welcome.