STERLING – A family-owned livestock business that spans four generations has kept Don and Mary Jean Dees busy organizing Oklahoma rodeos for the last 50 years.
Rafter D Rodeo was started in the early 1970s by the couple and life has never slowed down.
“I married a cowboy and that’s just our lifestyle,” Mary said. “We don’t put on any acts with our rodeos. Nothing’s planned in advance and everything we do including the announcer is spontaneous. It’s kind of a gut thing.”
This year’s rodeo season began June 10-11 at Gracemont and continues almost every weekend through October 1-2 with the Comanche Nation Horse and Bull Buckout.
“It would be so sad if we didn’t have rodeos to put on,” she said. “We have to have tough cowboys to rope ’em (livestock) and get ’em in the pen. It’s not an easy way to make a living, but we do what we love.”
Although Don and Mary started Rafter D Rodeo, the brand was created by Don’s father, Odus, in the 1930s, and started using his brand when he returned from World War II in 1945. The brand was first passed down to Don, then his two sons and now the Rafter D brand is registered with 11 grandchildren. With a great-grandchild expected in December, it could mean the start of a fifth generation to handle the brand, Mary said.
Don and Mary have four children – Jeff, Dusty, Darla and Jaime – and five grandsons and six granddaughters who are active in the business. In some instances, the grandchildren work the rodeo and also compete in many events. Every family member has their assignment, but might be asked to do a little more, Mary said. Son Jeff and his son Jake are pick-up men while Jeff’s wife Melodye and daughter Mikayla help with entries and backup times.
In addition, daughter Darla and her four daughters – Dara, Paige, Jadyn and Emma – are rodeo secretaries, timekeepers and accounting assistants. Son Jamie, with the help of his sons Chauk and Bandee, work as pick-up men, gather and work the livestock, loading the animals and taking them to the rodeos.
The family’s brand is on more than 1,800 head of livestock that have been used at the biggest rodeos in the U.S. and Canada. Rafter D livestock has been used in the PRCA shows and bulls have been used in the PBR Finals.
“We realize we are living a dream,” Mary said. “We are humbled in giving God all the glory.”
The level of success the family has enjoyed started with Don and his knowledge of livestock.
“He knows what makes good bulls and good horses,” Mary said. “We have a breed line that is well known. It starts with when they’re first born. Don knows what makes good genetics and figuring how he wants bulls and horses to look. He is a natural for this type of thing.”
The Dees family has enjoyed a simple and rewarding lifestyle that Mary hopes will continue for generations to come as they continue a path that started five decades ago.
“We don’t have money backing us,” Mary said. “We work hard. We eat and sleep rodeo. It’s a 12-months-a-year job. There’s never a down time. We don’t take vacations. Every cow has to be fed and every horse has to be fed. Not a day goes by that we don’t feed the animals.”
She compared the horses and bulls to elite human athletes who need proper nutrition and training.
“We can’t let ’em get skinny,” Mary said. “Even when the rodeo season is over, they have to be fed and kept healthy. That never stops.”