Hugo, Oklahoma (May 17-18, 2022)

A big ole happy clown on the sign high above Angie’s Circus City Diner welcomed us to a comfort food lunch when we pulled into Hugo, a town of less than 6,000. The name of the restaurant and the clown pay homage to the fact that 22 different circuses have headquartered here over the past 85 years, with as many as a dozen at the same time. Today three call Hugo home: Carson & Barnes, Kelly Miller, and Culpepper & Merriweather. 

Hugo, approximately nine miles from the Texas boarder, was not founded as a circus town. It was a railroad hub with a wild west flavor by the early 1900s. Its location in the Red River Valley with plenty of water, temperate climate, and wide open spaces coupled with easy rail access made it a good fit for tent shows needing a place to spend the off season which typically ran from November through March. What a fun, colorful, wacky place Hugo must have been during those five months.

It was because of the circus history that Cleone, our organizer extraordinaire, centered this summer getaway here. We rallied in Tulsa: Hettie and I flew in from the East Coast, Cyd and Deb joined us from neighboring Arkansas, and Pat drove down from Missouri.

Our first stop was at Mount Olivet Cemetery to wander the section called Showman’s Rest. This special area was established in 1960 for showmen and women from around the country “…who do not rise for next spring’s journey” to be laid to rest near one another. This rectangular area is marked off by granite posts, each topped by a small elephant statue. It put smiles on our faces to see that someone had placed one unshelled peanut next to each elephant. In the center of this section 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.” Unique headstones like this one are the attraction of Showman’s Rest. The main entrance of a circus and the requisite ticket booth are etched into a headstone. 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-size Strong in a top hat. A wagon-wheel monument for Ted Bowman reads “Nothing Left But Empty Popcorn Sacks and Wagon Tracks.” Ms. Woodcock is shown standing on the head of an elephant that is sitting on its haunches. Not all of the headstones are uniquely shaped or etched. Some are unremarkable and others have interesting inscriptions: “We have had the good life, but the season ended. ” and “The man with more friends than Santa Claus.” Coins had been left on numerous headstones as well as a few small plastic circus animals.

A complete departure from the circus theme but totally worthwhile were the recommendations of the caretaker who pointed out the resting places of four rodeo legends including “Daddy” Whatley, the Real Cowboy Association’s All Around Cowboy of 1947 and the Bull Riding Champ of 1953; Freckles Brown, who rode the never-before-ridden bull, Tornado, in the National Finals Rodeo in Oklahoma City in 1966; and Lane Frost, a young bull rider gored to death during a rodeo performance. Brown was Lane’s idol and he always said if anything happened to him he wanted to be buried next to Brown. Wish granted. Lane’s headstone is in the shape of a championship rodeo belt buckle and Brown’s is tall with a tribute on the back to both his rodeo backstory as well as his service in the Chinese Theater during World War II. “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. He was, more correctly stated, “A Marlboro Man,” since many men filled the bill but none as effectively as real cowboys, rodeo riders, and stuntmen, one of whom was Turk.

Cleone pointed out one last headstone before we left. William Ansley’s stone is shaped like a little boy’s lace up shoe, apropos because he was one of a couple dozen little people who traveled the country donning a blond wig, Little Lord Fauntleroy outfit, and Dutch-boy haircut. Ansley, aka Buster Brown, traveled with a dog named Tige and represented the brand for 27 years. He and his lookalikes were in large part responsible for making Buster Brown the world’s best selling children’s shoe. He was so beloved that when he died in 1972 his obituary appeared in The New York Times!

Totally pumped for all things circus, we headed from the cemetery to Growling Pines Tiger Preserve owned and run by a seventh generation circus wife, Elaine (whose specialty is bears), her tiger-loving husband, Ryan, and their daughter, Lilly. They traveled the country for years doing educational and entertaining shows for fairs, circuses, conventions, schools, etc. but yearned for a permanent education and retirement facility for their animals. Their plans began several years ago but came to fruition during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Elaine and Ryan have already constructed a nice covered viewing stand and performance ring, have restroom facilities, a sound system, small gift shop, and ample free parking and are in the process of expanding their forever home for rescued, retired, and performance tigers. Eight of their twelve tigers have been performing for and educating folks with Ryan for years, so the show has gone on, as the saying goes, without having to deal with the logistics of travel.

Our little group had a private tour (thank you Cleone). Picture six old ladies decked out in plastic safari hats sitting in the bleachers learning all things tiger. Ryan was a superb host and walked us through the appallingly small population of wild tigers left in the world, less than 4,000; the life span of wild and in-captivity tigers, 8 years vs. 15; diet; habits; personality differences; subspecies; etc. all the while petting and hugging Zuri who is admittedly his favorite.

With the educational preliminaries out of the way, we moved into the entertainment part of the experience. On command Zuri stood on her hind legs and stretched as far up on the fence as she could totally dwarfing Ryan and looking pretty darned intimidating to us. Three other tigers, one female and two males, joined Zuri and did whatever Ryan asked. Three lined up while a fourth jumped over them, one sat up like a dog begging for a treat, all four walked slowly in a small circle shoulder to shoulder and then laid down on command, one sat on the back of another, one even walked the length of the arena on its hind legs. They all moved to and from their assigned seats when Ryan gave the requisite commands. The reward for each behavior was a piece of sirloin on the end of a feeding stick. Cleone had shared the fact that we were celebrating Cyd’s birthday, so Ryan used washable finger paint and, with Zuri’s cooperation, created tiger foot prints on a canvas and gave it to the birthday girl.

We all fell in love with Growling Pines’ vision and mission and left with immense respect for this family that is dedicating its resources and time to such a noble, largely unrecognized cause. Our one-hour experience turned into two with all our questions and enthusiasm. Remember: viewing is free but touching could cost you an arm and a leg.

With a full day behind us, we headed across town to the Endangered Ark Foundation which is a private non-profit with a mission statement built on three things: providing a retirement ranch for circus elephants, ensuring the future of Asian elephants in North America, and educating the public about this endangered species. Our hostess extraordinaire had arranged for the rental of two small cabins right next to Foundation grounds. We checked out the brand new, totally charming cabins and then went immediately to the raised viewing stand where we threw carrots to three eager elephants; enjoyed a pizza, salad, and cookie dinner; and surprised Cyd with elephant-themed gifts.

With temperatures in the low 90s all day, we were excited to jump into the tiny showers. One by one we fell into bed clean and very excited about the prospect of an elephant delivering breakfast.

We six were poised on the porch, cameras at the ready, the next morning at 9:00 when Delrita came lumbering around the corner with her trunk curled around a picnic basket. The birthday girl had the honor or receiving it from her. Anticipating a treat of some sort, our personal pachyderm lingered patiently as we fed her bananas (peels on), carrots, and leftover cookies from last night. We put some in her trunk and she gingerly picked some up from our open hands. We riddled the trainer with questions which he patiently answered while we patted Delrita’s head and trunk.

After Delrita sauntered home, we enjoyed our breakfast, relaxed, packed up, and got ourselves to the barn in time for our private (yes!) experience at noon. Karen, the guru of Endangered Ark Foundation, promised Cleone (a frequent visitor and one-woman advertising machine) that she would make our experience special and she did! Just like the tigers, it did not disappoint! Again, picture six old gal pals sitting in bleachers all by themselves wearing plastic safari hats with the addition of matching elephant scarves when in strolls Delrita holding a Happy Birthday sign. (Enough with the birthday already!) Cyd was promptly given a birthday cupcake and Delrita was asked to blow out the candle. We had a demonstration on how the elephants’ feet are cared for and why that is important; learned that elephants only have four (huge) teeth…and we got to hold part of one; met the youngest member of the 16-member heard, a two year old; scrubbed Delrita with soapy water and hard bristled brushes; and fed a bucket of celery to two females who have partial trunk paralysis. Like the birthday girl had not been celebrated enough, Delrita stood patiently on three feet while foot four was slathered in finger paint. On command, she rocked back and forth on the painted foot and made Cyd a footprint.

Deb and I bought t-shirts and paid to have Delrita sneeze finger paint onto them. To the delight of the other four, we took turns standing with our arms outstretched, mouths closed, and glasses off about three feet from the end of her trunk. When the trainer said “blow” she blew. It was an instant-long gust of wind for each of the two colors that delivered splatters of paint on our shirts with a few spare splashes on our shoes, pants, necks, and faces. We now understood how Cyd ended up with frosting splattered on her shirt after her candle was blown out. Speaking of the birthday cupcake, Cyd fed it to the star of the show before we left.

Food started our visit to Circus City, USA or the Sarasota of the Southwest and ended it with a delicious lunch at Buffalo Grill. Totally enthralled with our educational, fun, and interesting trip to Hugo, we thanked Cleone, also our chauffeur, all the way back to Tulsa for taking such care with each detail of the trip!

For What it’s Worth

Hugo was founded in 1901 and named for the French novelist Victor Hugo.
Am I the only one who didn’t see that coming?

A coin on the headstone of a veteran lets loved ones know that someone visited the grave.
A penny signifies appreciation for the veteran’s service.
A nickel means you trained at boot camp together.
A dime suggests you served together.
A quarter signifies a visitor was with the deceased when (s)he passed away.

Elaine’s parents plan to be buried in Showman’s Rest when their time comes.

Growling Pines does not have a breeding program.

Daddy Whatley was shot to death in 1966.
Freckles Brown died of cancer in 1987.
Lane Frost was 25 when he was killed. The movie 8 Seconds tells his story.
Turk is still living but plans to be laid to rest at the site of his tombstone
that was put in place when, sadly, his son was buried.
William Ansley died of cancer in 1972 at the age of 80.

Sarasota, Florida has been known as a circus town since the 1920s when it became the winter home of the Ringling Bros. and Barnum & Bailey circus. It still hosts circuses as a matter of fact. Totally beside the point: Cyd, her daughter Jen, and I recently visited the circus museum there and found it well worth the price of admission! Cleone was there a few years ahead of us and recommended it.
It’s hard to get ahead of Cleone!


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