A month before the Carson & Barnes Circus leaves its home in Hugo, Oklahoma, on some sunny afternoon, you can hear the short whir and wail of chainsaws radiate throughout the hills.
A short hike through the forest reveals Gustavo Parra and a small band of roustabouts resting beneath an old oak tree, warming themselves in the sun’s rays which cut sharply through the canopy, chainsaws laying silent near their work boots, which are caked with red earth. The air is thick with the sweet smell of freshly cut wood. A husky with heterochromia dashes in and out of the underbrush.
All morning, Parra and his men have been hiking throughout the forest, lugging their equipment, searching for the most perfect, choicest, young, walnut, ash and elm trees to be cut and used for stakes. The stakes they cut will eventually become one of the over 200 stakes which help to anchor the World’s Biggest Big Top to the earth.
After the crew’s break, Parra walks with me around the moss and fern covered forest, stopping when we find a candidate.
It’s a young elm that stands 8 or 9 feet tall. It’s branches sparse with foliage. Parra pats the trunk of the tree, rubbing his hand against its bark. He nods with approval and mumbles something indiscernible. Parra then whistles to someone in his crew and yells, “This one,” with a thick Spanish accent, pointing at the tree.
Parra explains that the best trees are the adolescent ones. Their wood is tough enough to withstand the hardships of being pounded by an iron sledgehammers, yet their trunks are usually only 4-5 inches in diameter, the perfect size in Parra’s eyes for circus tent stakes.
Someone in the crew walks over to the tree, engine already humming, and quickly fells it with a single slice of their chainsaw. Next, another crew member with a wooden staff, comes along and leisurely lays the staff flush against the trunk and then with a machete slashes at the bark, parceling the trunk at 4-foot intervals. After the trunk has been marked, the man with the chainsaw quickly cuts the trunk where the bark has been severed by the blade.
The logs are then laid in a large pile of already cut wood. All the logs will eventually be hauled back to winter-quarters once enough have been massed. Parra says he needs at least 200 new stakes to be cut before the end of the day. Each year, he explains, the Circus leaves Hugo with a mix of 350 old and new wooden stakes which will be used throughout the 8 month season.
After watching a few more trees being cut down, Parra grabs a log in each hand and leads me out of the forest and back towards the winter-quarter’s work yard. There, he will have a crew member show me how they prepare the logs and transform them into usable stakes.
From Tree to Stake
In a small workshop, tucked away in the farthest corner of the work yard, I’m introduced to Arie Gonzalez. Gonzalez has been working with the Carson & Barnes Circus for two seasons as a roustabout. He will show me the process of changing the log into a steak.
The first step to transforming the logs into circus stakes is shaving them of their bark. Gonzalez does this with a two hand blade that he runs lengthwise up and down the trunk. Once the bark has been completely shaved, the next step is to cut the log into a hexagonal cylinder shape and to create a point at one end of the stake. The point of the steak will be driven into the turf by roustabouts on the road. To do this Gonzalez uses a table saw to shape the wood.
Once the log takes the right shape and the point is cut sharply enough, the opposite end of the stake, without the point, is fitted with an iron collar. The collar helps brace and reinforce the wooden stake, so when it is struck with the downward force of a sledgehammer the wood will not easily crack and split; though, this eventually happens as the wood either dries or is worn out.
The entire process for Gonzalez takes only 15-minutes to complete. Each stake weighs nearly 25-30 pounds once completely fitted.
Gonzalez will have to repeat this same action again and again until each log that has been cut in the forest is transformed into a ready-to-use stake. It will take nearly a week to complete his task.