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  • Little Dixie’s Circus Cemetery
  • Tanya Finchum (bio) and Juliana Nykolaiszyn (bio)

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Monument at Mount Olivet Cemetery erected in 1960: “A Tribute to All Showmen Under God’s Big Top.”

Often referred to as Little Dixie, the southeastern corner of Oklahoma is home to more than just customs stemming from Native American influences in the 1800s and southerners who later migrated to the area in the 1900s. Outside of similarities in agriculture, architecture, demographics, and politics resembling the American South, in one town you can add another unique feature to the list: the circus. Hugo, Oklahoma, the county seat of Choctaw County, has served as the winter home for traditional tent shows since the 1940s. [End Page 102]

The Miller family’s Al G. Kelly and Miller Brothers Circus was the first to call Hugo, Oklahoma, home, thanks to the support of local businessman and circus fan Vernon Pratt. While Pratt offered the Millers free water for their animals, it proved to be a good move for circus owner Obert Miller and his two sons, Kelly and D. R., as the family was looking for a warmer climate over the winter months. Soon after the Millers established Hugo as their winter quarters, other shows followed. In addition to the town’s temperate climate, Hugo also has easy access to state highways, which run north and south as well as east and west, creating more options when planning circus routes.

The Hugo-based tent shows often followed the agricultural harvest and brought entertainment to rural communities throughout the South. Through the years, approximately twenty circuses established winter quarters in Hugo, with notable owners such as Herb Walters, the Miller family, and Jack Moore all setting up shop in the Little Dixie town known as “Circus City, U.S.A.” As of 2014, only three traditional tent circuses continue to call Hugo home: Carson and Barnes, Kelly Miller, and Culpepper & Merriweather.

Despite the boom and later decline of circuses in the area, Hugo continues to hold strong to its circus heritage. One distinct reminder of this heritage can be found while exploring the tombstones at the Mount Olivet Cemetery. In the 1960s, a section of the cemetery was established as Showmen’s Rest, serving as the final resting place for circus entertainers, employees, and show owners from not only Oklahoma but all parts of the country. Wandering through row after row of unique markers and engravings sparked an interest in the people laid to rest there. Unanswered questions led to the development of an oral history project focused on preserving the culture of those with circus ties in the Little Dixie town of Hugo, Oklahoma.

Tanya Finchum

Tanya Finchum, professor and oral history librarian with the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program, has served on the Oklahoma State University Library faculty since 1999 and transitioned to the library’s oral history initiative in 2006. Finchum has been principal investigator of several oral history projects and has served on the library faculty since 1999.

Juliana Nykolaiszyn

Juliana Nykolaiszyn, associate professor and oral history librarian, joined the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program at the Oklahoma State University Library in 2007. From interviewing narrators to processing oral history collections, her work involves not only the creation but preservation and online access of oral histories.


Photos and interview excerpts were recorded as part of The “Big Top” Show Goes On: An Oral History of Occupations Inside and Outside the Canvas Circus Tent. Made possible by a 2011 Archie Green Fellowship from the American Folklife Center at the Library of Congress, oral history transcripts, recordings, and images from this project are available at the Oklahoma State University Library and the Library of Congress American Folklife Center in Washington, D.C.

[End Page 103]

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Headstone of John Carroll (1926–1980).

Inscription: “Elephant trainer.”

“We had a gentleman that worked for us, and he was just a drifter that came on as a teenager and ended up spending his whole life with us. His name was John Carroll, and he worked with the animals. And especially back in the old days, some of the guys...


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