Each November, Hugo, Okla., awakens to the sound of trumpeting pachyderms and prancing stallions, and even the occasional roar of a liger (a cross between a lion and a tiger) or two. As the wintering site of 20 circuses over the last 60 years, the town of 5,536 hosts about 300 part-time circus performers—not counting the four-legged kind—until the traveling shows hit the road again in mid-March.
Year-round residents greet the return of these center-ring celebrities with a “Welcome Home, Circus” breakfast at Hugo High School. The circuses repay that hospitality by providing an elephant-driven Santa for the town’s annual Christmas parade. Come March, residents get first crack at seeing their hometown stars shine before Hugo’s big-top performers strike their tents and head cross-country for another season of shows.
Hugo’s tradition as a circus community began in 1942, when a town official enticed the Kelly-Miller Bros. Circus across state lines from Mena, Ark., with an offer of free land, electricity, and water in exchange for public exhibitions each Sunday during the troupe’s off-season stay in the town. The Miller family—Obert, his two sons, Kelly and D.R., and their wives—decided to take Hugo up on its proposition. With that move, a big-top town was born.
Today, Hugo boasts four hometown circuses: Kelly-Miller; Carson & Barnes; an acrobatic troupe called Circus Chimera; and Culpepper & Merriweather, the newest in a long parade of circuses to call southern Oklahoma home. Trey Key, Culpepper & Merriweather’s new owner, however, is no stranger to Hugo. He worked as a clown for the Kelly-Miller Circus for a year, then learned the business working in the circus’s office before he made the flying leap to managing his own big top.
Key knew as a child that his future was the circus. But his mother insisted he finish college, so Key dutifully graduated with a philosophy degree from Brown University before learning the ropes at Ringling Brothers Clown School. His post-graduate, on-the-job training led him to Hugo.
“Hugo’s the only place I know of that you can put an elephant down as collateral on a small business loan,” Key remarks over lunch at Angie’s Circus City Diner.
Angie Cooke, a Hugo native, decorates her diner’s walls with circus posters and souvenirs in homage to her long-standing love affair with the big top. “My dad was a big circus fan,” Cooke says. “If there was a circus within 60 miles of here and he missed it ….” She says that you can’t live in Hugo without loving the circus. “It’s just part of your life.”
Out Kirk Road, the Carson & Barnes headquarters consists of offices, animal barns, a trailer park, and the appropriately named Dun Rovin’ homestead occupied by the circus’ current owners, Geary and Barbara (Miller) Byrd. Their daughter (D.R. Miller’s granddaughter), Kristin Byrd Parra, recently settled in here for the winter after a season on the road with her husband and new son.
“The circus is a great big traveling family,” Parra says. And Hugo? “There’s no people like Hugo people,” she adds.
Parra’s grandfather came home for the last time in 1999. His funeral, postponed to coincide with the circus season’s ending, was a big-top extravaganza even the likes of Hugo had never seen. A 10-piece brass band accompanied an antique circus bandwagon drawn by four Percheron horses in a procession that wound its way to Mount Olivet Cemetery’s Showman’s Rest—land reserved for Hugo’s circus folk. Here, amid elaborate headstones and epitaphs, Circus City lives on through legends.
“We have had the good life but the season ended,” one tombstone reads.
Unintentionally, the saying carries another reminder—that, in Hugo, the season’s ending is Circus City’s beginning.