LUVERNE, MINN. -- The unlikely sound of a trumpeting elephant at work rang through this farm community on a recent Sunday morning as the colorful big top of an old-fashioned circus sprang up among the cornfields. No fancy domed arenas for this crew.
The Carson & Barnes Circus had come to town, one of 240 communities from New Mexico to Maryland it will visit this year.
"Ain't that something?" mused Oscar Olson, 74, a retired farmer, settling his stout, shirtless, overalled frame on a bale of fresh-cut alfalfa to watch the elephants raise the big top.
Like about two dozen other local residents, Olson had been attracted to the site by the long row of circus semi-trailer trucks lumbering through side streets as the town awakened.
Slowly, two harnessed elephants pulled the bases of two 25-foot poles forward, as shouting roustabouts scrambled to set the tops of the poles into the tent roof. The elephants moved forward into the darkness beneath the collapsed tent, and the poles rose, forcing the roof upward in front of them. As soon as the poles were vertical, a shout brought the beasts to a stop, and their traces were transferred to the next set of poles.
Elephants and handlers worked through about 300 poles, gradually hoisting the 396-foot-long big top from one end to the other.
"They'll be up there where I was born pretty quick," Olson joked, jerking his head toward the other end of town.
With five rings and almost 200 elephants, horses, big cats, llamas and other animals, the 53-year-old circus is one of the three largest traveling tent shows in the country, said J. Allen Duffield of the Circus Fans Association of America.
"And they're one of the best," he said by phone from his home in Camp Hill, Pa. "It's completely aboveboard. If you haven't seen it, I'd tell you to go, and I wouldn't say that about all circuses."
Founder Obert Miller is dead, but his son, D.R., 74, D.R.'s daughter, Barbara, and her husband, Geary Byrd, run the show. Headquarters and winter residence are in Hugo, Okla.
Every day, beginning in March, the routine for the massive operation is repeated. About 200 performers, roustabouts, cooks, electricians, mechanics, animal handlers and other workers rise at dawn, pile into 80 semis and other trucks and hit the road.
By 8 a.m., they are at the next scheduled stop. By noon, the big top and outlying tents are up, the animals have been fed and the workers take a rest. They shop, practice their acts or eat lunch, then perform an afternoon show.
When the evening show ends, they strike the tents, pack up and go to sleep in bunk trailers and campers. At dawn the next day, off they go again.
"Aw, we're not much different than any little town," scoffed Hazel Frazier, director of the cookhouse, as she took a cigarette break in the open door of the truck kitchen. "We gossip, and we know what everyone's doing. Only difference is, we move every day."
General superintendent Neil Huff, who last year fled his 20-year job with a suburban Indianapolis fire department to join the circus, is more romantic. "I love it," he said. "This is the way a circus is supposed to be. This is a traditional circus, with the sights and sounds and smells of a circus, up close."
Duffield, too, said he prefers the intimacy of the big top but noted that the first American circus was held in a building at 12th and Markets streets in Philadelphia and that President George Washington attended the first show in 1793. Big tops did not appear until the mid-1800s, Duffield said. Their heyday ended when finding sizable vacant lots in sprawling cities became difficult. About 20 traveling shows still set up the big top, primarily in smaller towns, where space is available, he said.
The Carson & Barnes Circus includes Americans, Mexicans, and a few Hungarians, Poles and Portuguese. Many of the crew members speak only Spanish, a point of friendly curiosity in this southwestern Minnesota community, where the only divergence from English is Dutch, Frisian or Dakota Sioux.
"They're good folks," Huff said. "They have their families with them. Most of our acts are family."
Performance director Lalo Murillo, for example, was introduced to circus life at age 5 by his aerialist parents and was a full-time team member by age 12, filling in for his mother who was incapacitated in a near-fatal fall from a trapeze. His brother is an aerialist in another circus, he said.
Murillo said that he has tried work outside a circus but that "it's a little hard to adjust. I have an idea when I get really old, to live in Mexico and teach English. Until then, I'll be a coach."
By noon on this Sunday, the clanking of chains, shouting of handlers and trumpeting of elephants had stopped. Sightseers had vanished from the big top, which was dark, cool and silent inside. Rings and bleachers were in place on the grassy ground. Trapezes, high wires, sound and light systems and tent poles formed a network from ground to ceiling. A tumbler-juggler practiced silently in a far ring. Jim Garrett, who helps with the big cats, double-checked the stability of pedestals in their cage.
"She's particular," he said of Patricia White, tamer of lions and tigers, explaining his precision.
As show time neared and townspeople gathered at the gates, Huff hurried around tying up loose ends.
"There's a satisfaction in being part of something that makes people happy," he said. "The little kids with their eyes bugged out and their mouths open -- it's just a neat thing to watch. The rest of the world goes to work, and I get to go to the circus every day."