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The Elephants of Oklahoma

• January 06, 2014 • 4:00 AM

(Photo: Wesley Fryer/Flickr)

Circus City U.S.A. has its own circus graveyard and the second-largest Asian elephant herd in the U.S., but it’s hiding in a tiny town north of Dallas.

Hugo, Oklahoma, sits in the southeastern portion of the state, just miles from Texas. Less than 6,000 people call the town, named for French novelist Victor Hugo, home. It’s a good place to live, a “little city with a big heart,” according to its limited but entirely functional website. Cityofhugo.net also features the town slogan—”Home of Abundant Water”—which is not inaccurate, but perhaps buries the lede a bit.

You see, for the past 80 years, Hugo has played host to the circus. And not just one circus. More than 20 circuses, over and over again. Hugo very much lives up to its other nickname, Circus City U.S.A.

Ringmaster John Strong, also known as “Big John,” has an epitaph that reads: “The man with more friends than Santa Claus.”

In 1937, shop owner Vernon Pratt—who, in a related note, is my new favorite historical figure ever—made a decision. He drove a little more than 100 miles from his home in Hugo to Mena, Arkansas, where the A1 G. Kelley-Miller Circus spent its winters. Pratt, ever the salesman, convinced the owner of the circus to winter in Hugo instead. Thus began a long tradition that continues today. The Kelly-Miller and the Carson & Barnes circuses continue to spend winters in southeastern Oklahoma, two of the two dozen circuses that have called Hugo home at some point in the recent past.

So that’s fantastic.

Even better: Showmen’s Rest, part of Mount Olivet Cemetery that is dedicated to circus performers. D.R. Miller got the idea after the death of his brother, Kelly, in 1961. He purchased a number of plots and reserved the spaces for anyone who fit the description. Some of those include wire artiste Huberto Weber, elephant trainer William H. Woodcock, and entrepreneur Jack Moore, whose tombstone is shaped like a circus tent. Ringmaster John Strong, also known as “Big John,” has an epitaph that reads: “The man with more friends than Santa Claus.” Ted Bowman, who passed away in 1999, has a wagon wheel tombstone with the following inscription: “There’s nothing left but empty popcorn sacks and wagon tracks—the circus is gone.” There are some photos here, and they are fantastic.

We should note here that Hugo is not without other exciting, non-circus-related occurrences. From Wikipedia: “In late 1993, the town suffered several violent incidents. Before Christmas, a shootout occurred in a Wal-Mart parking lot. Within one week in December, two fires occurred; the first was at the Booker T. Washington gymnasium on December 26. On December 28 a fire erupted in the central business district of Hugo, consuming five buildings and burning for four hours. The Belmont Hotel, which the area historical society was renovating, was destroyed. Area authorities suspected that the fires were arson.” Of course, that paragraph checks in at 80 words, or roughly four times the amount of text related to Hugo’s position as the winter circus capital of the world. Huge failure, Wikipedia.

Because obviously, Hugo is also home to the Endangered Ark Foundation, which operates a retirement home and breeding ground for the second largest Asian elephant herd in the United States. And don’t forget about Angie’s Circus City Diner. So, basically, I want to go, but the nearest airport is Texarkana, 96 miles away. That’s a long elephant ride.

Noah Davis
Noah Davis is a writer living in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @noahedavis.

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