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By Steve Roark

My name is Steve Roark; I am co-owner and current manager of the Circle R Ranch.

The Beginnings
The Circle R Ranch is in the heart of the beautiful Ozark Mountain region of Southwest Missouri.  The ranch is located in the fertile Shoal Creek valley north of Neosho Missouri.

This area was the site of a great deal of Indian activity as is evidenced by our large arrowhead collection.  We have collected hundreds of perfect arrowheads ranging from small bird points to large spearheads.  When the bottom ground was plowed we would spend hours walking the fields adding to our collection.   Our prized spear point, measuring seven inches in length, was discovered digging the footing of one of our barns.  The greatest concentration of arrowheads has been around our home and barns.

The nucleus of our ranch began in the late 1800s when a small farming operation began taking shape that numbered about 300 acres.  With the beginning of the 19th century, the small farm saw the introduction of grape vineyards as wineries and grape production had their beginnings in Missouri (Several of our hillsides still show evidence of the terraces that once produced grapes).  Our father, Joe Roark, moved from southwest Oklahoma to southwest Missouri in the mid-1920s and began his career in real estate.  Dad spoke often of how he admired the small farm north of Neosho, hoping one day to be its owner. What caught his eye about this farm was the abundance of water including large springs and, of course, Shoal Creek.  Having been raised in southwest Oklahoma where water was scarce (and sometimes fought over) instilled in Dad the importance of owning water. Our mother, Helen Douthitt, and Father, Joe Roark, were married in 1935.  In 1939, the farm that Dad had admired since the 1920s came up for sale and early in 1940 Mom and Dad became the proud owners of what would become the Circle R Ranch.

The 1940s 
The Dairy Years
The 1940s saw a number of additions to the farm. First, the dairy operation was expanded to about 60 cows.  Dad's favorite milk cow was the Guernsey because of their disposition and most importantly the high level of milk fat in the milk (prized because of the rich butter it produced). The valleys were planted in corn to produce corn silage that was the feed of choice to keep milk production high.  The corn silage was stored in a newly built upright silo, which displayed the symbol of the new ranch, a circle with an R inside, representing the Circle R Ranch.  Other huge trench silos were carved into our hillsides to store additional silage.  The dairy operation was one of the largest in Southwest Missouri.  It took five people to milk the cows twice a day every day of the year (Milk cows never take a vacation).  As properties that surrounded the ranch came up for sale, Mom and Dad would acquire them to increase the productive capacity of the ranch.  During this period, the ranch began to develop a reputation for producing excellent horses, primarily Quarter Horses. Dad had been raised around horses and had an eye for a good horse and a way with them when it came to training.  Borrowing from a recent movie, Dad was known as a "horse whisperer" before it became fashionable. In the late 1940s, riding stables and a tack room (where saddles, bridles and other tack was stored) were built.  A stud pen was also built to house Salty, our prize stallion.  These wooden buildings were constructed out of oak that was harvested off of the ranch. By 1949, the year of my birth, the ranch had grown to about 600 acres.

The 1950s and 1960s 
Growing up on the Circle R Ranch and raising cattle.

In the early fifties Mom and Dad shifted from dairy farming to beef cattle.  Dad located 100 registered horned Hereford cows from western Kansas to begin our cattle operation.  Mom and Dad did not enjoy the paperwork and politics of the registered business so the ranch evolved to a commercial cow/calf operation.  Dad was a master at hiring good men and managing their work.  We always had five or six men working on the ranch or on other real estate projects.  I have many memories of working with these men and with Dad.  Building fences, clearing land, planting crops, establishing permanent pasture, working cattle, feeding cattle, putting up hay and helping deliver a baby calf or colt were activities that were repeated every year.  All of this work created a tremendous sense of pride in the ranch we were building.  Mom and Dad always used the word "we" when discussing things we were going to do or things that we accomplished, and never the word "I". 

My sister Claire was born in 1952.  As the two of us grew up over the years, the ranch was the scene of numerous cowboy, Indian, and calvary wars.  We always had our own horses to make our childhood games more realistic than the games of our city cousins.  Our parent's love of animals insured that we always had plenty of dogs, cats, puppies, kittens, goats and an occasional possum to play with.  We even raised our own chickens with mother taking responsibility for harvesting Sunday dinner (Dad was too softhearted).  Mother played the role of the traditional housewife, always preparing three delicious sit-down meals every day and later shuttling my sister and I back and forth to our many in town activities.   We always kept a couple of milk cows and would share the milk each day with our ranch hands.  Claire and I loved to watch mother churn fresh butter with the hope that we could lick the leftover butter out of the bowl.  Fresh baked bread, biscuits and red-eye gravy, and chicken and dumplings were always family favorites.  In the 1950s our county had a bounty on wolves.  On two occasions mother managed to run down a wolf with her car, load the wolf up in the trunk and transport her prize to the downtown Neosho square where she would claim her $25 bounty (making the front page of the paper). 

Putting in a big garden was a much-anticipated event every spring.  Dad always insisted on harnessing a team of horses to plow and level the garden.  He said it brought back memories of his childhood when he spent long days walking or riding behind a team of horses working their home place in southwestern Oklahoma.  I remember how complicated the operation of harnessing the horses appeared and how routine the task was to Dad. Our life during the fifties and sixties was as close to a storybook as anyone could imagine.

The 1970s to the present. 
Life changes and continues.

In 1970 Dad died in an accident on the ranch.  Claire was a senior in high school, and I was a junior at the University of Tulsa. Our lives suddenly changed in many ways.  Mother took over the reins of the ranching and real estate operation, and soon demonstrated her skill in business affairs.  We scaled back our cattle operation while I completed school and served a tour of duty in the Air Force.  During this time many friends and family provided endless help to allow us to keep our beloved ranch intact.

When I returned from the service we began to make significant improvements to our commercial cattle operation.  We introduced Santa Gertrudis bulls and began developing a commercial herd of Santa Gertrudis cross Hereford cattle.  This program took about six years to complete and in 1980, with cattle prices at an all time high, we made the decision to sell the cattle and lease the ranch in order to allow me to return to school. My education goals led me to Tulsa Ok., Tempe Az., Fayetteville Ar. and finally back home to Neosho. This journey took 13 years.

In 1989, I decided that one of our barns, what we call the hay barn/loafing shed, had finally deteriorated to the point that it needed to be torn down. While meeting with our carpenter to figure out how to safely dismantle the structure, I began to imagine what our home place would look like with the barn gone. I reflected on the hours spent working in the barn and the pride I would feel when we placed the last bale of hay in the loft and closed the door until winter. I remembered throwing hay through the opening in the floor to the cattle below during a winter storm. I remembered my innocence in getting my first kiss in this barn. The image of the barn being gone seemed to me like losing a front tooth and deciding to live the rest of your life being afraid to smile. The next day we ordered materials and our first barn restoration began. Every couple of years as finances would allow we would select another barn to restore.

In the early 1990s, while I was teaching at the University of Arkansas, the idea of hosting an arts and crafts festival on the ranch was born (Northwest Arkansas is a Mecca for arts and craft shows every fall and spring). My wife, Tammy, suggested that the time and money we were spending on the barn restorations deserved a financial return. She argued that the numerous barns were the perfect and most unique location to host a new art and craft festival. Our family agreed.

This festival idea would allow us to continue to maintain, restore and financially justify keeping the numerous barns that were no longer needed in our modern cattle operation.  The barns were too important a part of our heritage to allow them to deteriorate or be destroyed. 

Some folks will not understand our love for our barns. Barns on farms and ranches are far more than buildings; they stand as a physical history to the evolution of our agricultural endeavors. We have one barn that records the late 1800s and early 1900s when one barn was used for all farming needs. We have our dairy barns for when we were a dairy operation, horse barns and stud stables for our horse business, and cattle hay barns for when we used to put up thousands of small round bales of hay. Our barns are where we spent much of our life and constantly remind us of our life's history. Sadly, across the country, the expense of maintaining these historical monuments results in more and more old barns being destroyed or falling down. History is then lost, except in our memories.

So, what began in 1989 as an effort to restore one of our barns, ended eight years later with all eight of our barns restored. All of this work and investment in preparation to house exhibitors for our first arts and crafts show scheduled for 1997.  All of our family and friends took great pride in our newly restored barns. Neighbors and the numerous men and women that worked on the ranch over time would stop by and marvel at the newness of the old barns recalling they looked just the way they used to. Turns out that our family's memories recorded by the barns were shared by many people.

Our Mother passed away in 1996. We remember her as a Mother first and a savvy business lady next. In both capacities, our anchor. Sadly she would not get to witness the festival we worked so hard to create, but she did get to see the barns as they used to be. 

Since our festival would literally be held in our barnyard, we decided to call the event Barnyard Days. Barnyard Days in 1997 was held the first weekend in October and exceeded all our expectations. Our crowds over three days exceeded 30,000 people. In the following years with weather, 9/11, recessions and war, Barnyard Days has averaged over 20,000 people each year. We have become a yearly tradition for many families and our reputation as the premier family event in the four state area continues to grow. Although Barnyard Days is centered around a quality arts and craft festival, we have evolved into an event that resembles an old time country fair with fun for the entire family.

Each year, 4H and FFA cubs and numerous other charities use Barnyard Days for fundraising and to promote their charitable goals. All children's activities including horseback rides, train rides, haunted barn, archery range, hay bale maze, and paint ball range are managed by 4H and FFA groups and raise hundreds of dollars for each club. We keep the cost of these activities at $1 each and local banks donate hundreds of free ride tickets. A huge petting zoo is free and we have a large display of antique tractors and farm equipment that Wolf Branch Tractor Club manages. A Mountain Man Camp with black powder rifle shooting is a crowd favorite. These activities let people step back to a simpler time for family fun in our barnyard.

In 2007, my sister Claire was diagnosed with breast cancer. She continues to do well in her recovery from this terrible disease. Living through this experience with my sister caused us to reexamine our motivation for Barnyard Days. We began a search for a charity that would allow Barnyard Days to take on a higher purpose. The charity we identified was Breast Cancer Foundation of the Ozarks (BCFO). Our family learned firsthand the time and financial toll that breast cancer treatment consumes. As a family, we were fortunate to not have to worry about the financial issues, but became very much aware that we were the exception. When a lady and her family fights breast cancer it turns out that the cost of medical treatment can be dealt with in a number of ways. But the financial challenge of reduced work hours or perhaps having to quit work creates the harsh reality of how a family pays their bills while in treatment? The answer is BCFO, the only charity in our region that steps up and provides direct financial assistance to women and their families while they are in treatment. A lady and her family should not have to worry about paying bills while fighting this disease.

In 2010, my family made the decision to donate Barnyard Days to BCFO. Our family continues to help BCFO manage and run the event, but Barnyard Days is now a significant BCFO fundraiser and important tool in getting the word out about the wonderful work that BCFO accomplishes. In addition to direct financial assistance, BCFO provides hundreds of free mammograms and counseling to area ladies. As I often say: "If we did not have BCFO, we would have to invent them. The work they do is just that essential to our families battling breast cancer." I am honored to have been asked to serve on the BCFO Board of Directors beginning in 2013.

In the years since Dad passed away, we have increased the size of the ranch from 850 to 1100 acres. In addition to cattle production, we manage the ranch for wildlife and have guided deer and turkey hunts each year. In 2005, we began acquiring land in north central Kansas for farming and wildlife development. The Kansas operation works closely with local wildlife biologists and Pheasants Forever to establish quality wildlife habitat in addition to a no till farming operation. In 2009, we were selected as the Lincoln County Kansas Wildlife Habitat recipient.

In 2010, we installed a sophisticated Management Intensive Grazing system on our ranching operation with two new wells, four miles of underground water with 38 new water locations and ten miles of new cross fencing. We have survived the droughts of 2011 and 2012 in large part due to this new grazing system. We currently manage 200 cows and are just beginning a commercial Bermuda Grass hay operation. Our ranch of 75 years continues to prosper.

Our roots, now and always, are in our ranch and in our family.