Preacher’s son, KDH hope to enshrine memories of the Circus Tent

By on September 17, 2018

Everyone was welcome at the non-denominational Circus Tent.

Longtime residents and visitors to the Outer Banks no doubt remember the Circus Tent. It stood on the bypass at Milepost 8 for 20 years, from 1968 to 1988, a 100-foot long striped tent that was usually packed with families rocking out to live folk music five nights a week every summer.

The Tent was the brainchild of the Rev. Hank Wilkinson, who wanted to create a non-denominational, family friendly church that would draw in summer tourists who might have otherwise skipped Sunday service.

Now his son, Scott Wilkinson, is concerned that if steps aren’t taken to preserve the memories the Circus Tent, the history of this church/live music venue/ice cream parlor/community center may be lost to time.

Wilkinson, along with the Town of Kill Devil Hills, hopes to have a highway historical marker installed where the Circus Tent once stood. But to do that, they need to make their case to the North Carolina History Archives Office.

“When I first heard the requirements I thought, ‘There’s no way,’” says Wilkinson.

First they had to show that the Circus Tent had been written about in a historical journal or text. That seemed unlikely, until they found a chapter about the Tent in Sarah Downing’s book, Vintage Outer Banks.

Folk music revues were a staple of the venue.

The rest of the application process basically amounts to proving to the History Archives Office that the Circus Tent was historically significant, and that it meant a lot to people across the state of North Carolina.

That’s why the Town of Kill Devil Hills is asking for anyone who has fond summer memories of this place to bring their stories and pictures to them. Memories from out-of-town visitors are especially helpful, or even anecdotes from locals who recall attending with out-of-town relatives or friends. The deadline for their application is Nov. 1.

“I realized this is turning into history. Fewer and fewer people will be around who remember it. It was such a special place. It needs to be remembered,” Wilkinson said. “Obviously, it was a big part of my life, but knowing that it meant so much to others is really nice.”

Stories and photos are already pouring in, and together they tell the story of this singular church.

The Tent had a concrete building attached where they sold ice cream, the sundaes and milkshakes all bearing circus-themed monikers like “the Two-Headed Clown Cone” and “the Fat Lady Sundae.” At the time, they were the nation’s largest distributor of PET ice cream.

The venue was primarily a place to gather and have fun.

Outside, there was a beautifully landscaped prayer garden that won numerous awards. And inside the tent, folk music acts put on three or four shows a day to an audience of over a thousand people. At its peak, the Tent had 300 rotating volunteers a summer, and it wasn’t uncommon for visitors to come down and volunteer during their vacation.

“The religious aspect was very soft sell,” Wilkinson said. “No preaching per se. Everybody, Christian or no, could come enjoy the ice cream and meet people from all over the United States. It was good, clean fun for all ages.

“People came in barefoot. Babies were in the sand playing, adults were enjoying the music, and teenagers were out in the prayer garden making out. It was the most unique thing I’ve ever experienced.”

Mary Quidley, Kill Devil Hills town clerk, has been one of the folks at the forefront of the Circus Tent’s historical marker application, but more than that, she’s excited to see all these stories and photos finally collected.

“It’s about a whole lot more than the historic marker,” says Quidley. “I’ve lived in Dare County all my life. It’s important for people to realize where they came from, and if I can do anything to help people do that and preserve history, that’s a good thing.”

To share your memories and photos of the Circus Tent email the Town at You can also write to them at Office of the Town Clerk, Town of Kill Devil Hills, P.O. Box 1719, Kill Devil Hills, NC 27948. And visit their website to see the photographs they’ve already collected.

All photos courtesy of the Town of Kill Devil Hills.

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  • tim

    Your article says the tent was in KDH but you say it was near the 10.5 mile post and that is Nags Head. I discovered the OBX around 1986 and don’t remember the tent but a local tells me they think it was near the 8 mile post area.

    Monday, Sep 17 @ 9:47 am
  • Sam Walker

    Thanks for catching that Tim. Fixed.

    Monday, Sep 17 @ 10:08 am
  • Joan Meador

    When I was a teenager my parents took my brother, sister and I there at least 4 times a week when we were there on vacation. We really like going.

    Monday, Sep 17 @ 12:31 pm
  • Steve

    I spent many nights there when I was a kid. Music and ice cream were great. There was so little to do at night and this was a fabulous family environment. I have an elderly local friend, Shelby, who has fabulous stories of putting up the building and talking business people to donate the freezers for the the ice cream. This was a warm friendly local gathering place where you could always meet someone you knew…or make a new friend.

    Monday, Sep 17 @ 2:30 pm
  • Jim Little

    I have very fond memories of the place. We went every year it was open and I’m pretty sure we have every record album that was made by the singing groups. I miss those times…

    Monday, Sep 17 @ 3:36 pm
  • donnie ross

    i went to school with scott and it was a great place always packed great ice cream jesus was always there to comfort u i might b mistaken but i think they had surfing movies to sometimes sombody did

    Monday, Sep 17 @ 8:17 pm
  • Wayne

    We spent most summers at the OBX with our grandparents. They took us to the Circus tent constantly. So many great memories there!

    Monday, Sep 17 @ 8:22 pm
  • Mike Parsons

    We remember the Circus Tent and the many different people from the many different Churches that were part of this great ministry. As teenagers we dipped ice cream. When we weren’t there dipping ice cream we were there for the shows. Visitors to the Circus Tent sometimes became guests at our home as did some of the Puppeteers. There are fond memories of the garden and bookstore which is still in use on our property on Colington Road.

    Tuesday, Sep 18 @ 7:12 am
  • Debi D

    Don’t leave out this photo that I just came across while doing a little more reading about the Circus Tent

    Tuesday, Sep 18 @ 2:23 pm
  • MRB

    I adored the Circus Tent! I won a Fat Lady sundae in a Christmas in July ornament contest. I still have my Chronicles of Narnia book set I bought at the bookstore there. I wish my kids could have experienced it.

    Tuesday, Sep 18 @ 7:43 pm
  • Kelly Parsons

    My church teen youth group, from Emmanuel Baptist Church in Charleston, WV, would go to the beach every year and going to The Circus Tent was part of very fond memories those trips. Singing, ice cream, laughing, having fun. Great times! But you could also feel the holy spirit in that place at times. It was a wonderful place to be.

    Friday, Sep 21 @ 8:40 am
  • Anonymous

    Spent a few summers dipping ice
    Cream at the tent during the summers
    We had a place on the beach called
    The Fantasy started staying on
    Weekends when I was 12. Only
    Thing we were old enough to do.
    I remember the Stick boys and
    The Gard girls a lot of people I
    Had not met yet as most were
    At Kitty Hawk schools. I also remember
    Making a lot of green sherbet and
    7-up mixed shakes that would brain
    Freeze and sweating cause the place
    Would pack out on weekends

    Friday, Sep 21 @ 6:33 pm