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For decades, a yearly reunion at Beavers Bend State Park has kept the O’Rear family connected across miles and generations.
By Sara Cowan
Published May/June 2017
One of the oldest and most beloved stalwarts of the O’Rear clan has been a southeastern Oklahoma icon for many years. But this family member is not a prolific matriarch or an ornery uncle—it’s Beavers Bend State Park near Hochatown. For the past five decades, generations of O’Rears have gathered here every summer to catch up with cousins, frolic in Broken Bow Lake, and reminisce around the campfire. Add in some fierce-yet-friendly competition, a deep and long-standing love of family, beloved and anticipated recipes, and quite a few sunburns, and the O’Rears have the ingredients for a memorable summer tradition.
Bob Henderson, one of the self-described “old guys” in the family, reserves more than forty of the state park’s cabins a year in advance for the occasion, and it seems everyone has a favorite. Bob’s uncle Dale Pollard and his wife Margie now stay in number 14; they had their honeymoon in cabin 2 in 1962. The rough-hewn siding and simple layout haven’t changed over the years. Henderson likes number 48, but he remembers sneaking out of the windows of number 8 as a young man.
The O’Rear family started this tradition in 1967 or 1968, depending on who’s counting. By the time Dale’s grandmother Ida Mae O’Rear Gragg passed away in 1968, his eleven aunts and uncles felt the family already was spreading out and moving away, and they didn’t want to lose touch. So they set a date to meet up at Beavers Bend that August. Since then, both the event and the family have grown.
“We’ve had good attendance over the years, because my brothers and sisters would bring their children and grandchildren,” Margie says. “The children would bring their friends, and they enjoyed the reunion too, so we inherited them as part of the family.”
The choice of Beavers Bend was no accident. The older O’Rears, who hailed from the small community of Marshall Hill about nine miles southeast of Idabel, began vacationing in the lush, green woods of McCurtain County after their fathers, uncles, and grandfathers built the park as members of the Civilian Conservation Corps. So when these scattered cousins, siblings, children, and friends gather here, it’s not an exaggeration to say the park feels like a relative. Throughout this park, they see things built by their family’s hands.
In the beavers Bend Forest Heritage Center, photos and exhibits showcase the history of the park’s development. There are Works Progress Administration and CCC group shots, exhibits extolling the many uses of lumber, and quite a few impressive art pieces. A leisurely meander through the small museum is part of the experience for many visitors. Bob Henderson knows his family’s history with the park well.
“I remember when I was a child, I saw pictures of my grandparents and some aunts and uncles out here on the low-water dam in the ’40s and ’50s,” he says. “When I was a kid, this old dam was where we’d spend all our time.”
Dale’s cousin Kent O’Rear, originally from Idabel and now living in Frisco, Texas, frequently walked across that dam with his grandfather, Lloyd Waylon O’Rear, when the water wasn’t rushing.
“I have a vivid memory of being about six years old and hearing the alarm for the first time while we were on the far side,” he says. “I thought it meant the water was coming that second, and I ran across to the other side.”
Henderson chuckles as he recalls returning to the campsite with his grandmother after taking a walk during another outing at the park. A raccoon had stolen some fried chicken from the family’s table, and the two saw it swimming across the river holding a drumstick out of the water. Luckily, his grandmother was able to snap a photo.
As the kids grew older, they took on a more active role in planning the weekend’s shenanigans.
“When I was a teenager, I was an in-betweener in terms of age,” Henderson says. “My job was to take all the kids raccoon huntin’. We’d walk through the woods, get to the dumpsters, and flash our lights on the raccoons. We’d tell stories about people who lived up on the hill.”
Memories like this help form ongoing connections that keep this event on the family’s yearly calendar.
“To venture out in the woods with your cousins and find abandoned cabins, that was a fun adventure to have as a kid,” says Joanne Pierce, Bob’s second cousin who now lives in the Fort Worth area. “Especially to be out at night, which you’re not usually allowed to do.”
With so many O’Rears scattered throughout the park, parents let the kids have a lot of leeway in how they spent their time.
“All of us cousins had bikes before we had cars,” says Bob’s second cousin Mehgan Murray, also of Fort Worth. “No one really questioned where we were going, because we were in the park—there was only so far we could go. We were let free.”
That freedom led to many coming-of-age moments for those who grew up attending the reunion.
“My uncles Waylon, Johnny Harold, and Dale were sitting on the tailgate of Johnny Harold’s red Ford truck,” Henderson says. “It was about midnight, and I’d just brought the boys in from coon huntin’. They called me over, and I worried I had done something wrong—I couldn’t imagine why they’d be calling me. Then they called me by my name and I thought, ‘Oh, my gosh, these guys actually know who I am.’ They offered me a beer. I tease Dale about offering it to me at a young age, but I don’t think they knew how old I was. I might have been fourteen. That was a big moment in my life, when the triumvirate knew who I was and invited me to hang out. It was like being made in the mafia.”
Long-standing traditions abound. Teenagers still take the younger children on flashlight-fueled adventures. Friday night dinner always is at Margie’s cabin, and everyone still enjoys crawdad fishing and cash games of poker and keno. Young adults continue to congregate at the ranger cabin.
“Depending on the mood of the group, we may also do an organized game of volleyball or gather at a private swimming hole,” Henderson says.
Some of the group will head to the lake, put chairs in the water, and visit for as long as the beer lasts. At Saturday’s potluck lunch, announcements go out about births, graduations, marriages, and other milestones, and the family takes time to honor those who’ve died in the past year. They collect funds at a silent auction for things like medical expenses or flowers to place on family gravestones throughout the year.
But it’s when the competition begins that things really get moving. Everybody knows Aunt Berline’s banana pudding runs out quick, which results in a race to line up once it’s ready. The most competitive event of the weekend, however, is the horseshoe tournament. This is no casual pick-up game. There are engraved plaques and established rivalries. Team loyalties and smack talk match the enthusiasm and passion of any major league sport. Pauline O’Rear lives on the family’s old property in Marshall Hill, and she says the horseshoe tournament is her favorite part of the weekend.
“Until I moved to Dallas in September 2014, the reunion was the only time I saw my family,” says Shelby Henderson, Bob’s daughter. “It’s the best time of the year.”
Shelby has missed only one reunion in her life, and she still regrets deciding to go to soccer camp instead. Though Bob has told her he’ll want her to take over the responsibility of organizing the cabin reservations one day, Shelby’s favorite job for the reunion committee is collecting and scanning old photos and researching the family tree. She is proud to show younger relatives the importance of maintaining connections with kin.
“A lot of my friends don’t see their family very often,” she says. “Young people take it for granted, especially if they live nearby. They don’t think about it at all.”
For the O’Rear clan, however, this reunion serves not only as an ongoing connection with their relatives but as a much-anticipated yearly outing.
“For a lot of these people, it’s the only vacation they take every year,” Bob says. “There’s a lot of economic diversity, just like in lots of families. There are dozens of kids who live just to come here.”
Though attendance has waned since its peak in the 1980s, when up to 115 family members might make their way to Beavers Bend, the O’Rears are hoping for a big turnout for this year’s reunion, which is by most counts the fiftieth. Bob has faith that the tradition will continue as long as the younger generations stay in touch. Shelby started a Facebook group as a way to help the family remain close between trips to Beavers Bend.
“What holds it together is an absolute commitment by a core group of people to be here every year,” Bob says.
Through technology and the deliberate keeping of tradition, the members of the O’Rear family have a clear path to reconnect with one another. And every year, the park’s winding road through the pines will welcome them like the outstretched arms of another beloved cousin.
Beavers Bend State Park, 4350 South State Highway 259A near Hochatown. (580) 494-6452 or TravelOK.com/state-parks.