When Walter White was 10 years old, the circus came to his hometown of Hugo, Okla. That fact alone is not particularly remarkable. The interesting thing is that both White, now 85, and the circus are still there. Hugo has been called Circus City, USA, since 1937, the year Vernon Pratt, a local grocer and circus enthusiast, convinced the owners of Kelly-Miller circus to move their base of operations from Mena, Ark., to the small town just north of the Red River in southeast Oklahoma.
“Over 20 different circuses have wintered here over the years,” the gregarious White explains. “We probably have one of the biggest elephant herds in the country.”
These days the town is the winter home of three circuses: Carson & Barnes, Kelly-Miller and Culpepper and Merriweather.
“We love these circus people,” White says. “When they come back to Hugo in the winter, they know they have a family.
“I’ve got three kids,” he continues with a laugh, “and all three of them ‘went with’ circus kids in high school.”
Many of the performers hail from all over the world, and most travel back to their homes in the offseason, but the majority of the circus workers call Hugo home. Indeed, many were born and raised in the town.
“I literally grew up in the circus,” recalls David Rawls. “Both my parents were performers, and so were all my siblings.”
Rawls, 65, also grew up in Hugo. The one-time owner of the Kelly-Miller circus even served for a time as the town’s city manager before getting back into the circus industry as the current manager of the Carson & Barnes circus.
“The rest of my siblings have all left the circus,” Rawls says, “but even as a teenager I knew I wanted to do this for a living.”
Perhaps surprisingly, the circus business is thriving despite the unstable economy. Even in today’s fast-paced world, there is something about the circus that inspires a sense of wonder in young and old alike.
“There has been a metamorphosis in the entertainment industry as a whole, and we’ve had to change in some ways to keep up. You have to have more modern music, modern lighting,” Rawls explains. “But one thing that hasn’t changed is that mom and dad want to take their children to the circus.”
For White, the town’s tourism director and former president of the Chamber of Commerce, the circus is just one of many reasons people should visit Hugo. There is also the nearby Doaksville archeological site, the Showmen’s Rest cemetery for circus folks who have passed and scenic waterways nearby. But White also knows that the number one reason people will come to Hugo is the same as it’s been since he was a wide-eyed 10-year-old. They want to see Circus City, USA.
“We have elephants in our Christmas parade!” White proudly boasts. “We’re the only town in the U.S. that has Santa Claus ride in on the back of an elephant.”