The Culpepper and Merriweather Circus

Yesterday I went to the circus for the first time in close to twenty years.
The Culpepper and Merriweather Circus, a small show based out of Hugo, OK, arrived in my little town of Edgerton, KS in the morning, set up a big top in Martin Park, put on two afternoon shows and departed nearly as quickly as it arrived.
While I enjoyed it I also have to admit I came away feeling a little sad. What I witnessed was evidence that another proud chapter in history is drawing near its end. I’m not faulting the performers, they did a great job of entertaining. Several of them made quick costume changes and performed in a variety of acts, but they are just a remnant of a bygone era.

The show started with a lion and tiger act in a steel cage that filled the ring then was quickly dismantled as the show continued. There were beautiful young women in shiny tight-fitting costumes swinging from a rope and a trapeze. There was a juggler, and a family on unicycles introducing the newest addition to their act, a 7 year old boy who could ride a one-wheeler nearly as well as the rest of the family.

Then of course there was a clown, yes a clown. It seems the days when 30 people in whiteface and red rubber noses crawling out of a single car are over, at least in an arena under canvas. Melvino, the clown, did a more than adequate job of entertaining the children (of all ages), but he looked a bit lonely unaccompanied by a troop of others like him.

The animal acts were limited too. There were 3 large cats, a flock of trained pigeons, and that was all unless you count the man in costume who was billed as the half human ape. It is hard to imagine a circus with no acrobatic dogs, no prancing ponies and perhaps the most conspicuous absence, a total lack of elephants.

Unlike the big shows of yester year that traveled with rail cars full of animals, hundreds of performers and had three rings full of constant activity, this show had one ring under a tent that would be considered small by the standards of the first half of the 20th century.

It is obvious the American traveling circus is well past the glory days it enjoyed when I was a small child. I’m sad to see the decline, but I applaud the performers and the owners of this small circus who cling to a life that could be chosen only out of love for what they do and a desire to continue breathing life into a dying tradition for as long as possible. I thank you for allowing me what may well be my last glimpse at a glorious past.

Click here to see more of my photographs of the circus.

Learn more about the Culpepper and Merriweather Circus by visiting their website at

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 On a side note: The Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus is performing this week in Kansas City in the air-conditioned arena of the fancy new Sprint Center. I have no doubt their show will have more glitz and glamour than what Culpepper and Merriweather offered here in Edgerton, but what the small show may lack in size and shine they make up for in soul.

Culpepper and Merriweather also remains affordable, with tickets purchased in advance at $9 for adults and $6 for children. Tickets for the Ringling show in Kansas City start at $25 for nose bleed seats and range to over $100 for seats close enough to see the clowns and smell the animals.

I’m glad I gave my $9 to people who I’m betting appreciate my money more.

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Your feedback is always appreciated.  To leave a comment click here.

Images and text Copyright 2010 Dave Michael.  No portion of this article may be reproduced without permission of the author.

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8 Responses to “The Culpepper and Merriweather Circus”

  1. Clay Says:

    I am glad you got to go to the circus I told you about. Me, I hate them. Nice photo’s though. I liked the panarama photo.

  2. Adriana Says:

    Hello Dave!
    The abscense of animals is the evolution of the circus. The animals don’t choose to live that life, just people do. Here in Brazil it’s forbidden to have animals acting on the circus, cause it had been proved that they don’t receive good treatment at all. Circus people want to be able of doing more and more and more… but not the animals. Sorry for my poor english. 😛 Let’s enjoy the new circus, pleaaaase.:D

  3. Dave Michael Says:

    Hi Adriana,

    I couldn’t speak with authority on how well this circus cares for its animals, but I did have some concerns about the big cats before the show when I saw them sleeping in tiny cages barely large enough for them to fit in. I don’t know if they had any provisions for them to get out and exercise other than when they performed.

    I don’t believe the lack of animals was due to the evolution of the art form. While I applaud the performers for their abilities, what I saw was a small group of people desperately clinging to a dying tradition.

    As for your English, there is no need to apologize. Your English is excellent. I take no pride in admitting like most of my countrymen I have a total lack of fluency in any language other than the one I grew up with.

  4. Trevor Says:

    I suspect that the small circuses like this one were always there, but people remember the big ones. A dozen or so covered wagons, drawn by horses – you might have seen something that pre-dates the early 20th century super circuses, something that goes back centuries before the USA was even born as a nation.

  5. Phil Carlson Says:

    Hi Dave — I’ll try to make a long story short. In a nutshell, I am a photo editor at the newspaper in Quincy, Ill. In my spare time I have started shooting large format black and white landscapes. I am looking for a 5×7 enlarger, so I googled “Elwood enlarger” and the picture of you with your old Elwood from a year ago on flickr popped up. The name search lead me to this blog, and the first thing I saw was the picture of the clown you photographed, the same guy I photographed a year ago. His name is Aaron Rider, and I photographed him in Quincy when he was performing with the Carson and Barnes circus in July of 2009. Anyway, I figure your enlarger is long gone since that was over a year ago, but thought I’d share the clown picture story with you regardless. Small world, isn’t it? Best, Phil

  6. AnnMarie Says:

    We attended a for real family circus last summer and had some of the same thoughts as you. They put their heart and soul into it but surely, it was the end of an era.


  7. More about The author Says:

    This is a topic that’s near to my heart…

    Cheers! Exachtly where are your contact details though?

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