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Hugo's circus history on display in southeast Oklahoma

“Come one! Come all!” Witness the history of the “Greatest Show on Earth” in Hugo with largest elephant herd open to the public, circus memorabilia at the library and an area in a cemetery reserved for former circus performers.
BY SHEL WAGNER Published: April 1, 2012

The best trips alter our perspectives in lasting ways we didn't see coming.

A family jaunt to Hugo did that for us.

This southeastern Oklahoma town first caught the eye of the Kelly Miller Circus, back in 1937. Hugo's central location and temperate climate proved an ideal base for a caravan of performers, and through the years the idea caught on. More than 20 different circuses have called Hugo home, and three still do.

We began our Hugo adventure at the Choctaw County Public Library, where circus-themed sculptures mingle with a child-size big top. A circus industry section boasts a collection of trade publications. This is the first time it dawns on me that circusing is a serious business: Just as my dad had gone every morning to the phone company, other dads tamed lions and walked tightropes.

My daughters tell me I have a bad habit of gabbing with strangers, but this is a requirement if you want to get a handle on Hugo's unique culture. Longtime locals at the library admitted they'd never thought of their growing-up experiences as out-of-the-ordinary: Surely plenty of American families have a trapeze in their front yard?

We coasted over to Angie's Circus City Diner to take in some sustenance. Open since 1998, the diner has a trove of circus memorabilia that probably has been around for much longer. Original posters, tickets and oodles of clowns captured our imaginations until platters of comfort food arrived, including scrumptious home-cooking — catfish, chicken fried steak, and pie. My older daughter asked our server about a particular elephant photo, and we learned we could meet the elephants eye to…er, trunk!

It turns out Hugo is home to the largest open-to-the-public elephant herd, at the Endangered Ark Foundation. We were there on a day when the facility offers tours, and we were invited to meet and even feed a few of the 20-some-odd beauties. We had stumbled upon pachyderm paradise!

Created in the early '90's, this facility's mission is a tricky prospect: to perpetuate the dwindling Asian elephant species in the United States. Eventually, unless this breeding program finds success, America would be devoid of elephants.

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