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Home / Browse / Category / Folklore and Folklife / Meyer, Rhena Salome Miller
Rhena Salome Miller Meyer—better known as “the Goat Woman”—lived in Smackover (Union County) for over fifty years. Her sometimes reclusive nature, numerous pet goats, and considerable musical talents as a “one-woman band” all contributed to her folk-figure status in the region.
Rhena (sometimes spelled Rhene) Miller was born in Orwin, Pennsylvania, on July 26, 1905. Her father, John R. Miller, was a Quaker who worked on a dairy farm and had a traveling medicine show that promoted the Seven Sisters Hair Tonic. He is said to have used young Rhena as a model in advertising the hair-growth tonic; however, as with much of her life story, no evidence has been found for this. Her mother, Katie Kessler, was an opera singer in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. The Millers encouraged the musical talents of their six children.
Local legend holds that Rhena Miller studied painting and drawing at Braun’s School of Art in Pennsylvania as well as music at Juilliard School of Music in New York City and the Zerfing School of Music in Harrisburg. She also purportedly received training with opera singer Emma Foster in Pottsville, Pennsylvania, and with other specialists in Germany, France, and Italy.
For a season, Miller performed with Barnum and Bailey Circus as a one-girl band, playing seven or eight instruments simultaneously. Over the course of her life, she learned to play many instruments, including the accordion, castanets, cymbals, drums, harmonica, harp, piano, tambourine, and violin. Miller is also said to have spent time in New York City as a John Robert Powers model—modeling cosmetics, hair products, and clothing.
In 1929, Miller once again found herself performing with a circus—this time traveling through southern Arkansas. Due in part to the nation’s economic depression, the troupe separated in Camden (Ouachita County) in 1929. Around this same time, at age twenty-four, she married Charles D. Meyer, the circus’s business manager who was twenty years her senior. The couple traveled on to Smackover, where they set up their circus wagon as a home.
Although the 1920s oil boom had turned the small community of Smackover into a bustling area, it had returned to a quieter state by the time Rhena and Charles Meyer moved in, attracting much attention from the townsfolk. Charles Meyer owned a tire vulcanizing business in town. He built a tall board fence around their little circus-wagon home and the back of his tire shop. Rhena Meyer tended her goats as if they were family; the Meyers had no children.
In the early 1950s, the Meyers moved their wagon to a spot near Smackover Creek on State Highway 7. Rooms were built on to the wagon for more space. The Meyers entertained guests with silent movies, musicals, or religious films—sometimes followed by a musical presentation by Rhena Meyer.
In 1963, Charles Meyer died at age eighty-six. After his death, Rhena Meyer performed for audiences more often—playing for Girl Scout troops and birthday parties. She regularly appeared on Channel 10’s morning television show “The Big Ten Jamboree” with other musicians from the area. Her goats even joined her on air, bleating along to the music.
In 1984, Meyer left her circus wagon and moved into a nursing home. She died on January 21, 1988, and is buried in the Liberty Cemetery at Louann (Ouachita County).
Her 1926–27 Ford Model-T circus wagon is on display at the Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources.
For additional information: The Goat Woman’s Circus Carriage exhibit. Arkansas Museum of Natural Resources, Smackover, Arkansas. http://www.amnr.org/goat.htm (accessed September 4, 2015).
Heat-Moon, William Least. Blue Highways, revised edition. New York: Back Bay Books, 1999.
Morgan, Barbara. “They Call Her the ‘Goat Woman’ but Her Life Is Filled with Music.” El Dorado News-Times, August 18, 1974, p. 1.
Rumph, Julia Mae. “Goats, Dogs, Music and Art Rate Foremost with ‘Goat Woman,’ Mrs. Charles Meyer.” Oil Belt Shopper, December 19, 1958, p. 1.
Wood, Ramona. The Goat Woman of Smackover: An Arkansas Legend. El Dorado, AR: ABC Press, 2001.
Bridget Wood El Dorado, Arkansas
Last Updated 9/18/2015
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