For native Parisians years ago, "going across the river" meant a trip to the Texoma Lounge or beer stores and dance halls that used to be located south of Hugo, Oklahoma. With the formation of Sun Valley and Toco, the need to cross the Red River diminished and most of the night life died out. For more recent residents of Paris, an outing to Oklahoma has usually meant a trip to Broken Bow. But more of us should be heading due north. Hugo is well worth a visit.
Traveling just 25 miles north brings you to a town that is quite different from Paris although we can both thank France for our names. Our Oklahoma neighbor was named after Victor Hugo, French author of Les Miserables. It has an eclectic list of claims to fame - home to three wintering circuses, the second largest herd of elephants in the country, birthplace of Bill Moyers, Busy Bee restaurant, Hugo Lake, and one of the Choctaw Nation’s casinos.
Fifteen percent of Hugo’s population is Native American and the largest employer in the county is the Choctaw Nation. This is evident with a quick stop at the Choctaw Nation Casino, just north of the Red River.
Hugo earned the name "Circus City of the U.S" with three different circuses wintering there. Many of the artists return to their own countries for the off season but the animals remain. When we visited in February, the paraphernalia required of a traveling circus was scattered around the headquarters - folded tents, wooden poles, ticket kiosks, trailers of all sizes and shapes, and portable, metal fences used to enclose animals. It’s better to visit before they begin their circuit in March.
An impressive draw anytime of the year is the Endangered Ark, a haven for retired elephants and for encouraging reproduction by the endangered Asian elephant. If you call ahead, your family can receive a tour of the BIG barns and lovely grounds. Call Kristin Parra 580.326.2233. http://www.endangeredarkfoundation.com/
Continuing in the circus theme is the Mount Olivet Cemetery, final resting place for "all the showmen under God’s Big Top". The headstones have playful pictures and carvings of elephants, trapeze artists, and circus tents. Engravings reflect a love of performing. "Loyal. Queen of the Bareback Riders" reads one monument. "May All Your Days Be Circus Days" advises another. The cemetery also draws rodeo fans. Lane Frost, for whom the movie "8 Seconds"was made, and Freckles Brown, rodeo’s all-time bull riding legend, are both buried here. There’s no place like this in the country and well worth a stop.
Lunch time in Hugo has some enticing options. If you haven’t had enough of the big top, try eating at Angie’s Circus Diner, which is filled with circus memorabilia. The most famous eatery in town is The Busy Bee, an old fashioned diner with a grand total of 10 seats at the counter. When I worked at the Lamar County Attorney’s office 28 years ago, we used to close occasionally for lunch and head here for their incredible hamburgers. I was thrilled to discover last month that these burgers are still as good as I remember.
Hugo was established in 1902 as a terminal town for the Frisco railroad at a time when Oklahoma was still officially Indian Territory (and Paris was 63 years old). The current Depot was built in 1914 and has been restored as a museum. An original Harvey House Restaurant, once part of the nation’s largest restaurant chain, has also been restored and a buffet lunch is served each week-day. The museum is worth some time and is open all year. http://www.friscodepot.org/
Hugo offers some interesting lodging. The Old Johnson House Inn, now a bed and breakfast, was built in 1920. Metra Christopherson, a transplant from Arizona, is owner and chef. Thanks to her gourmet cooking, an impressive breakfast spread is served to guests. She is also available for catering events at the house. http://www.oldjohnsonhouse.com
If you have ever wished you could spend the night at Pat Mayes Lake in a nice cabin with a fireplace, then you should try Hugo Lake, just east of the town. Twenty six cabins hug the shore with lake views. A marina is available and the angling good according to my fisherman friend and Hugo native, Ed Ellis - especially the crappie.
Hugo and Choctaw County are a part of a three county consortium that is developing the Kiamichi Trace - a pathway along the Kiamichi River starting at the border of Arkansas. The Caddo Indians moved south along this waterway to the Red River for their winter campground and back north for the summer. Check their website at http://kiamichitrace.org/ for information on what’s happening in Hugo, Choctaw County, and along the river. You’ll be surprised at the offerings.