LIFE Archives: Circus City USA, 1947 {Hugo, Oklahoma}

25/04/2011 § 40 Comments

What I love most about the LIFE archives, is how completely I disappear down a rabbit hole for hours.  Seriously.  Most times, when I take a stroll through, I’ll just start off with a single word query.  Could be a name, could be a place, or even just a year, it doesn’t matter — every single time I discover something amazing.

With Water for Elephants at the front of my mind, I wanted to see if I could find any old circus pictures for my Tumblr.  My first query turned up some lovely images taken by one of my favorite photographers, Nina Leen, in 1949 — you can see them here and here — but little more digging revealed a photo that was unrelated to Leen’s set, and amazing in its own right.

The image of this man so lovingly tending his tiny horse immediately drew me in.  Where was this?  When was this? Why was this linked to a group of photos about the circus?  As it turned out, this image belongs to a set taken by Cornell Capa for LIFE Magazine in April 1947, in Hugo, Oklahoma.  A quick bit of research later, I discovered Hugo’s interesting history.  Frequently referred to as “Circus City USA,” Hugo has been the favored winter grounds for more than 22 traveling circuses since 1937, owing to a central location, flat lands and temperate weather.  In those winter months, Hugo’s elephant population is the second-largest elephant herd in the United States.  Hugo is also home to one of only two cemeteries in the United States dedicated to circus performers, called “Showman’s Rest.”

The photos are amazing, but I don’t want to drown you in images, so I have included many of them after the jump.  If you are so inclined to wander through, you can do so at your leisure.  But before we get there, I will force you to take a look at some of my very favorites.

You cannot begin to imagine how excited I was to find these images: the handmade costumes, the obvious pride in showmanship, the families of performers, the exotic animals, juxtaposed with a regular, run of the mill Midwestern town in 1947.  Capa’s images of Hugo are simply amazing.

View knife throwers, clowns, acrobats, trapeze artists,
bears, among others, after the jump.


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§ 40 Responses to LIFE Archives: Circus City USA, 1947 {Hugo, Oklahoma}

  • Marissa says:

    This is incredible. I’m so intrigued by performers from bygone eras. I just watched The Prestige last night. Have you seen it? It’s about magicians at the turn of the century, so a little different then the circus, but in the same vein. It’s absolutely amazing! Add it to your Netflix queue.

  • styleonthecouch says:

    I love the photo of the showgirl and the horse with the head plume. I haven’t seen the film Water for Elephants yet but I am quite tempted. My grandparents lived by the seaside and there always a bit of a carnival feel there, these images whilst very different kinda remind me of some of that…

  • Mariah says:

    @Marissa – I have seen it, great film!

  • Haven says:

    Wonderful blog………

  • J. Baggett says:

    Many familiar faces there. As a former Hugo resident with special friends in the Circuses, I really enjoyed the article. One of the pretty show girls with the horses just died this week and her services are tomorrow. I think the little girl is the current owner of Carson & Barnes Circus, which is out on the road for the season. Thanks for posting.

    • Mariah says:

      Dear J.

      Thank you so much for commenting. I am humbled and pleased that you enjoyed this post and hope that you will pass on my best regards to the family. It truly is an honor to be able to communicate with someone who personally knows/knew these amazing people. Hugo is a great city. I hope to make it out for a visit in the future and see it with my own eyes.

      My best wishes,

    • J. Davis says:

      Well said! Betty Jean is my grandmother. I enjoyed seeing her pictures and the others as well.
      Jenny Parnell – Davis

  • Candace Cannon says:

    So glad to see this. So many of the pictures are of my grandfather, aunt and mother. My mother Betty Jean Pratt Cannon died 7/5/11. She was a beautiful lady as was her sister Rita Jo Pratt Lathrop, who died two years ago. Vernon Pratt was there father and in several of your photos. I was very young when he had his circus but still remember… I have several of these photos but so many are new to me. Thanks so much for honoring them in this way. Candace Cannon

  • Sarah Baugh says:

    Can you please post a link to where you found these on the LIFE site. I am having trouble finding them in the archives. Many of these are of my family! thank you SO much for posting them! What a treasure!

  • Tina says:

    Thank you for this article and great pictures. Pratt Grocery Picture is my grandfather, Vernon Pratt. That’s him standing at the counter. He also owned one of the Circus their in Hugo. Several of the pictures are of N’Daddy, my aunt and my mother. Thank you so much for sharing these. What a treasure!

    Tina lathrop Tucker

  • Mariah says:

    Hello Tina, Sarah, and Candace,

    It is such a pleasure to speak with you. I am over the moon that I was able to connect with each of you through these amazing photos of your amazing families.

    Candace, my condolences on the passing of your mother. She was a beautiful and talented lady. The pictures of her are among my most favorite.

    I am happy to say that the pictures that you see here are a small selection of the ones that are available. I wish the LIFE Archives were a bit better organized so that I could simply post a link to the photos, but they are a little persnickety.

    Here is my best attempt at navigation instructions for you from afar:

    First, go to the Google/LIFE archive site:

    Second, search for: “hugo circus” (this will give you about 85 results)

    Third, click on one of the larger images that appear. (You should immediately see some pictures that I didn’t post of Betty Jean!)

    Fourth, this should open a screen that gives you details about the image on the right hand side. **If you want view/save the largest image possible, click on the image again. (You’ll know you’re on the large format because the LIFE watermark should appear in the lower corner)**

    Fifth, scroll through the “related images” bar at the lower right by choosing “more” — there will be more images than the 85 in the original search.

    If you have any questions, let me know. If you have trouble, I’d be happy to go through and capture these to email them to you, if you’d like.

    My best wishes,

  • Leslie Moore says:

    Thank you so much for this great article. I, too, grew up in Hugo. Many of my classmates were multi-generational circus performers. Thank you for the wonderful photos.

  • Sharon Granger-Hawley says:

    Fantastic walk down memory lane…thank you.

  • Marcheta Sutton Osborne says:

    Thanks for the pictures. I grew up in Hugo and Rita Jo was one of my best friends

  • Jeri Howser says:

    Wow, so cool! I have lived in Hugo since 1960 and remember a lot of these folks. Thanks so much for posting this! Jeri Sinclair Howser

  • wanda moore says:

    I am Wanda Moore oldest daughter of Jack Moore. Our family started Carson and Barnes Circus. We struggled thru the lean years and built it to the second largest circus under the big top.We moved to Hugo in 1952 my brother, Mike and sisters Martha and Madelyn and I all graduated from Hugo High school..We are just finishing a video that is on the web.
    search for lions of hugo,the town that raised us

    • Sheila Kenny says:

      I am an old friend of Martha”s from California…have lost touch with her and would love to find her! Can you please send me her contact info or
      Ask her to contact me at the email below? I would be grateful….

    • Stacy says:

      Hi Wanda,
      I know this post was from 4 years ago, but I hope this reaches you now!
      I was wondering if that documentary was finished, and if there was a chance at getting a copy of it?

  • Jeanean Cannon Weaver says:

    These are such wonderful photographs of my family and the wonderful life they shared making people of all ages laugh and smlle. What a fantastic tribute. Thank you for posting the article and photos. is there any way that I could get some of the originals?
    These are of my grandparents, my aunt and mother. I believe there were some of my mother on the trapeze which is now on display at the Frisco Depot in Hugo. I am the youngest daughter and I would treasure some of these photos.
    Thank you so much for sharing.
    Jeanean Cannon Weaver

    • Mariah says:

      Hello Jeanean,
      It is a pleasure to speak with you. I am so happy to have connected you with these pictures. There is a link to purchase the images on the upper right corner of the info page, but I notice that some of the images come back as “unavailable” when clicked. I definitely think you should try contacting LIFE directly to see if you can purchase some of them. I also tried to figure out what issue the images might have been featured in, but the only thing I can find are a few pictures of Hugo elephants taken by Cornell Capa in the April 28, 1947 issue, which leads me to initially assume these pictures didn’t appear in the magazine. Does anyone know if this is true?

      My best wishes,

  • Mariah ! What a treasure trove of wonderful photographs. I have taken the liberty to add your link to our class website:

  • Candace Cannon says:

    Mariah, I understand these photos never made it into LIFE. As I believe the story goes something more important happened (maybe with the war?) and never made it to publication. I have several of the orginal photos and several of them hang in my hallway in my house. Would love to add the ones I don’t have to my collection. Are you with a circus? What is your interest in the circus? Do you have names to all the pics you have posted here? I still live in Hugo and if you ever do get to town would love to visit with you. Thanks again,
    Candace Cannon

    • Mariah says:

      Dear Candace,
      I must admit that I came across these pictures quite by happy accident. That evening, I simply had an urge to search for pictures of the circus and I was introduced to Hugo. Thus, I am not with a circus, but I have a great deal of respect for the tradition. It must have been amazing to grow up in Hugo.

      Unfortunately, I do not have any names for the photos. I would love to add the names, if you have them.

      If ever do I end up in Oklahoma, I am coming straight to Hugo and will definitely take you up on that offer to visit! It would be a pleasure.

      My best wishes,

  • Richard Draper says:

    I really enjoyed the articles and remember so much about the circus folks. They were really good people. I remember looking forward to the
    Hugo Roundup each year and three of the circuses would each put up a Big Top and have free performances for vistors. The Hugo Roundup lasted for 3 or 4 days. Each year they would usually have a Western Star as Grand Marshall for the big parade.
    I graduated in 1552 and Marcheta Sutton & Rita Jo Pratt was in my class.
    Was sorry to hear that Rita Jo had passed away.
    The Circus section in the Mt. Olive Cementary is outstanding.

  • Richard Draper says:

    I graduated in 1952, not 1552. Sorry

  • Margaret Huskins says:

    I was born and raised in Hugo,my family were circus performers. my familys last name was Gallagher,my grandfather was Harry Gallagher and Lulu was my granny. My aunts were Betty Pinney,Bonnie Chamberlain, Tiny DoSontos(Gala Shawn),Pat Morsanti, and my mom was Margaret Clark (Mugsy), My dad Was Jessie Clark(CORKY).They did many different acts,they were a balancing act,arieal,web and ladder,worked with the elephants, I was so glad to see this posted,I have some pics I would love to add

  • BergertToBe says:

    Reblogged this on Becoming "The Bergert's" and commented:
    Pretty cool article about my hometown. It does have its perks!

  • Rhonda McCarter says:

    This article is great! I grew up in Hugo and still live here. My parents still live about a mile and a half from where Betty Jean lived and I suppose Candi still does live right there. My aunt lives right across the corner. My kids and I visit the cemetery regularly and they love spending time at Showman’s Rest. I always love seeing the old pictures down town when Hugo was really booming. My grandparents lived on fifth street about a block from some of the old circus grounds and I have heard many stories from when my Mom and aunts were kids.

  • larrywm44 says:

    Mariah, I am a Board Member, Circus City Museum and Park. We are building a history of Hugo’s Circuses and a Photo Database. Perhaps I can contact you direct for more info.

  • Linda Key Vandever says:

    Thanks for sharing this with us My Unckle is the the knife thrower and his wife is his target they were with the circus for years .There names are Clarence and Tillie Key.He was better known by circus family as Chief Keys.

  • Linda Key Vandever says:

    Thanks for sharing this with us My Uncle is the the knife thrower and his wife is his target they were with the circus for years .There names are Clarence and Tillie Key.He was better known by circus family as Chief Keys.

  • […] Comments are welcome. To leave a comment, please click below. To see a wonderful  collection of vintage photos of circus people  taken from the “Life” magazine archives, click here. […]

  • Peter Rosa says:

    I enjoyed this collection of photos. Please feel free to visit my facebook page under PETER ROSA. I lived in a Hugo Winter Quarters twice over the years. I have what I believe is the largest collection of circus photos on my facebook page which is listed under PETER ROSA. They are all in albums that are categorized. Some are from my wife and my personal circus collection, others are phjtoos I have been able to capture from the internet and categorize. One of the best websites for circus is BUCKLES BLOG, CIRCUS HISTORICAL SOICIETY, and there are others. Enjoy!!! Pete Rosa, Showfolk in Venice, FL

  • Marni Hickman says:

    Thanks for sharing these photos. I think my mother may be in one of these photos (the one with the monkey on the horse’s back). How can I verify that it is her? Her name was Eunice Campbell.

  • larrywm44 says:

    Marni, I am putting together the circus history of Hugo.
    I will try to verify that is Eunice Cambell.

  • I am beyond excited to see these, even though this blog is five years old, because these are the first time to see these images of my great-grandpa (Chief Keys) who is the knife-thrower & Tilley is his wife.

    My cousin, found this blog and so happy she did! I have been walking in the footsteps of my great-grandpa and embracing our Choctaw heritage. It’s so surreal to see the knives in these pictures because we (my parents) actually have some of them. Thank you for taking the time out to post this blog, otherwise, I may not have ever seen these beautiful photos showcasing my great-grandparents!!!
    Jessica Keys-Richardson

  • Alan Simpson says:

    I stumbled upon this site, and I must say these pictures are mesmerizing. So, so nostalgic.
    Nostalgia is a lot like a good grammar lesson. It can make the Present “Tense” or the Past “Perfect”.
    I knew Betty Jean Cannon through her children, who were friends of mine. The pictures of her as a young woman were impressive. Betty Jean would have made Rock Hudson “change His mind”.
    Thank you. Alan “Allie” Simpson

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