A small town filled with significant history lies somewhere, way down in the pits of southeastern Oklahoma. We are referring, of course, to Circus City, U.S.A., or at least that is what was known as long ago. Today, we Oklahomans call it Hugo, Oklahoma, and it holds many wonders for anyone looking to seek them out.

Located mere miles from the Oklahoma-Texas Border, Hugo is home to only about 5,000 people. Hugo, OK has a long, rich history of homing and supporting circuses. Some of these circuses prospered while others folded. To this day, Hugo still headquarters some circuses in the winter season, including the Kelly-Miller Circus and the Carson & Barnes Circus. Both circuses date back to the 1930s and are still performing today.

The Showman’s Rest: Hugo, Oklahoma’s Circus Cemetery

This small Oklahoma town does not seem too exciting. However, this town is the home and resting place for many circus legends. Located just north of the Jake Pullen Bypass is the Mt. Olivet cemetery of Hugo. Within the Mt. Olivet cemetery lies Showmen’s Rest. This is a rectangular section surrounded by granite posts topped with elegantly decorated elephant statues.

In the center of said area is a large headstone etched with a performing elephant upon two feet. Below that picture is an engraving saying, “A Tribute to All Showmen Under God’s Big Top.” It is noted that any performers who did not rise to make the spring’s journey with the rest of the circus were laid to rest within Showmen’s Rest. Showmen’s Rest is one of the most prominent circus performers’ cemeteries in the country.

Hugo, Oklahoma is home to many prominent circus groups

Showmen’s Rest has many colorfully designed headstones and graves to match the personality and trade of the fallen circus performer. One of the legendary circus folks who call Hugo, Oklahoma, their final resting place is Obert Miller, founder of the Kelly-Miller circus. His beautifully decorated headstone has the main entrance, including the ticket booth, of the “Al G Kelly and Miller Bros” Circus etched into it.

A few other legendary performers laid to rest in this area are elephant trainer John Carrol, chimp trainer Bonnie “Jean” Warner, queen of the bareback riders Zefta Loyal, and the Great Huberto. These are just a few among the many great performers who called Hugo, Oklahoma, home and still do.

Does Hugo, Oklahoma Still Embrace the Circus?

Hugo, Oklahoma, is still embracing its performance-rich history. Taking a visit through this small town will show you circus trailers backed into driveways, welcome signs displaying their circus heritage, and maybe a trapeze or two set up on a front lawn. It seems clear that Hugo, OK, or I should say Circus City, U.S.A., is not looking to cut ties with their history any time soon. This small-town wonder is undoubtedly a need-to-visit for anyone currently living in Oklahoma or travelers passing through.

Hugo is also the home of the Endangered Ark Foundation. This place is a non-profit “retirement home” for Asian elephants who once performed in circuses. Their goal is to ensure the survival of Asian elephants in North America and educate the public about the importance and severity of this endangered animal. The Endangered Ark Foundation houses the second-largest Asian elephant herd in North America.

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Bull Rider’s Reprieve: Hugo, Oklahoma’s Rodeo Cemetery

Anyone who visits Mt. Olivet Cemetery will likely be surprised to learn that The Showman’s Rest is not the only attraction to be found there. Within the same vicinity, visitors can also find the graves of three World Champion Rodeo Cowboys, the original Buster Brown, and the original Marlboro Man. While many people visit Hugo to see The Showman’s Rest, they typically don’t even know that Bull Rider’s Reprieve is just as impressive!

The first World Champion Rodeo Cowboy laid to rest at Bull Rider’s Reprieve was “Daddy” Whatley. Known for winning the R.C.A All-Around Cowboy of 1947 and Bull Riding Champ of 1953, Whatley was shot to death in 1966. His legacy continues at Bull Rider’s Reprieve in Hugo, Oklahoma, where anyone is welcome to visit.

Hugo, Oklahoma, has strong rodeo roots

The next World Champion Rodeo Cowboy found at Mt. Olivet Cemetery is Freckles Brown, well-known for riding “Tornado, The Unrideable Bull” in 1967. To this day, a small marble slab that depicts this famous OKC bull lays at the foot of the grave – often accompanied by a fresh orchid. Brown’s headstone features carved sides with a faithful replica of this 1962 World Champion Bull Rider belt buckle.

The final World Champion Rodeo Cowboy found at Bull Rider’s Reprieve is perhaps the most famous. Lane Frost had always wanted to be buried next to Brown. When a bull killed him in 1989 at the age of 25, his request was granted. Visitors can find different gifts left by his grave and an urn that reads “Lane Wasn’t Perfect, But He Knew Jesus.”

Does Hugo, Oklahoma Still Embrace the Rodeo?

The first annual rodeo in Hugo, Oklahoma, was scheduled in 1947 under the sponsorship of the Hugo Junior Chamber of Commerce. Half a decade later, the purse grew to $1,500 and required a three-day event at the Hugo football stadium. To accommodate the growing rodeo presence in the city, rodeo events were moved to the Todd Whatley Lige Hammock Memorial Arena near the Choctaw County Fair Grounds.

Today, Hugo, Oklahoma, still hosts many special rodeo events. In 2022, Hugo has the privilege of hosting the 60th annual Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association (PRCA) Rodeo. In addition to this, the city also hosts a yearly rodeo parade through the traditional route in historic Hugo, Oklahoma. It will crown a Queen, Princess, and Sweetheart to serve as rodeo ambassadors.

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