Sunday, January 3, 2010

Hugo Oklahoma, Circus Town, U.S.A.

Tom, a friend, proudly told me once that he grew up in southeastern Oklahoma in a small town named Hugo. I thought about that a minute thinking how different Tom’s childhood was from the one I experienced growing up in Detroit, Michigan. I concluded that our lives were certainly shaped by different influences. But Tom and I share two things, we both play bridge, he is a pro, I am an amateur. And, we both love music and play an instrument. Again, Tom is a pro, and I am an amateur. But, what really caught my attention about Tom’s early life in Hugo was when he told me that Hugo Oklahoma was the wintering home of the circus, and that circus people quartered the Elephants in the empty lot next to his house, where they reached their long trunks over the fence to steel peaches from Tom’s tree.

As a kid I loved to go to the circus, which regularly played in Detroit. I can still see the three rings in the large arena and the spot light focusing on the different acts working in those rings.

There was always a dusty haze through which we looked down from our seats in the bleachers. And peanuts, I can remember the bag of warm peanuts we bought from the venders hawking their wares up and down the isles.

Of course I never gave a thought to where the circus went when it left Detroit. I for sure didn’t think that when winter set in the circus headed for warmer climates to “winter.” Florida seems like a logical place to winter and in Sarasota Florida the Ringling Bros and Barnum and Bailey circus have made the town their winter home since 1927. But Hugo Oklahoma? This rural town of 6,000 in Choctaw County does not seem like the logical winter home for the circus. But since 1941 over 20 circuses have made Hugo their winter home, and today there are four circuses that operated out of the rural Oklahoma town.

The first quarter of the twentieth century was an exciting time for circuses throughout the United States. In 1911, there were over 32 circus shows touring the country. For the most part, they traveled by train, which enabled them to transport all their regalia and animals to selected destinations.

In 1923 the country’s largest circus, Ringling Brothers, toured with one hundred rail cars transporting big top tents that could hold more than ten thousand spectators. Such big shows could require fourteen acres of land to accommodate the equipment, animals and people. The Economic Depression of the 1930s caused many circuses to go out of business. By 1933, there were only three railroad circuses traveling in America. Economic necessity brought a lot of changes to how the circus operated, and truck circuses began to grow with the organization of the Miller Brothers Circus in 1939.

The Kelly-Miller Brothers Circus was a scaled down model of the Ringling Brothers show. The Kelly-Miller circus, and others that took to the road, never reached the status of the bigger shows of the 1920s that traveled by rail. By the mid-twentieth century, the circus, as an entertainment venue, took a back seat to the popularity of movies, television and amusement parks. But, the circus is not dead. The Kelly-Miller circus, one of the biggest to winter in Hugo, has 65 people and 33 vehicles.

Oklahoma is a convenient place for the circus to call home; the state is centrally located, which makes for easier travel plans. When the Kelly-Miller people start their season, they head into Texas in February and work their way north to Massachusetts, then swing southwest to Chicago and eventually back to Oklahoma. In 2008, a quarter of a million people attended the Kelly-Miller Circus.

Hugo is not only the home of several circuses; Showman’s Rest in Mount Olivet Cemetery is the last home and final resting place for many circus people.

In Showmen’s Rest the graves have tombstone with etchings of elephants and statuary of different circus people and animals.

For a really good read about the circus in the 1930s, I recommend the novel, Water for Elephants. The book is extremely well researched and written.

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