This oral history project aims to preserve the voices associated with occupational culture and tradition of the American "Big Top" circus in the small town of Hugo, Oklahoma, historically referred to as the “Sarasota of the Southwest” and “Circus City USA.”
Since the 1940s, various circuses and carnivals have chosen to winter in Hugo, Oklahoma. Each November the town welcomes back the employees and the menagerie and each April, the performers host a show for the town before leaving for the road. Over the years a symbiotic relationship has been nurtured where the town’s businesses have supported the circuses and carnivals and in turn, circus owners and performers have been civic partners contributing to such endeavors as to the local hospital and local schools. The circus is about creating illusion, stimulating the imagination, and providing family entertainment. At the heart of this project is capturing information about the occupations that help define it.
Hugo, located in a cultural area of the state known as Little Dixie, is the county seat of Choctaw County. The county population is approximately 15,000 with Hugo having approximately 5,000 residents. Circus performers have been such a large part of Hugo’s history that the Mount Olivet Cemetery has a Showman’s Rest section which includes monuments depicting the lives of departed performers.
Historically big tent circuses and outdoor carnivals have traveled from small town to small town entertaining young and old alike with aerial and animal acts. Childhood memories of cotton candy and “Step Right Up” can be recalled by many. The contemporary cultural landscape of the United States is almost circus free. From organ grinders to handbill designers to tent set up crews to local welders to local bankers, it takes a community to put on the show! Hugo, Oklahoma provides a rich historical canvas in which to preserve and document this unique aspect of working life.
Funding for this project was made possible by the Library of Congress American Folklife Center as part of a 2011 Archie Green Fellowship awarded to researchers Tanya Finchum and Juliana Nykolaiszyn with the Oklahoma Oral History Research Program at the OSU Library.