Since 1974, a member of the Cunningham family has lived along Brush Creek in Delaware County.

The family, which began with Rhonda and Dearl, has expanded to include four sons, three wives and six grandchildren.

On Saturday, Sept. 8, during the 2018 Delaware County Free Fair, the Cunninghams will be honored as the Farm Family of the Year.

It's an honor, both Rhonda and Dearl, say came as a complete surprise.

"We were shocked," Dearl said. "[But this] is truly a family thing."

Rhonda moved to Delaware County in 1968, when her mother and step father, Scott and Emma Philips, purchased a farm on Brush Creek in 1968.

A 1971 graduate of Jay High School, Rhonda met Dearl during a dance at the American Legion Hut in Salina.

Rhonda who attended the dance with her aunt and uncle, said this guy — who later turned out to be Dearl — kept standing on her toes while talking to her cousin. 

"I kept puling them back," Rhonda said, adding Dearl kept stepping on her feet. "Finally I kicked him and said 'will you quit.' He turned around and said 'well, wanna dance.'"

Call it love at first dance. The couple dated and then married in December 1974. They have lived within a mile of their current home on Brush Creek since then. 

Their sons, Ty, Wade, Clint and Josh, were raised on Brush Creek. All remain connected to the land, as they raise their families. 

Ty and his daughters, Keaton, 15, Falyn, 9, and Landry, 4, live in Jenks.  The co-owner and operator of Necktie Ranch, Ty's operation focuses on natural fed beef for pre-packaged sale. Ty works for Purina and takes care of Bullet for Oklahoma State University.

Wade and his wife Jackie have two children: Tell, 7, and Audra (Audy) Dale, 4. The couple own a operate a cow/calf operation of their own, as well as being involved in a cattle partnership with Dearl and Rhonda on a lease property. Wade is also an auctioneer.

Clint and his wife, Melissa, have one son together, Rhett, 16. They run cattle on Brush Creek with land adjoining Dearl and Rhonda, as well as having a cow/calf operation in Leach. Clint is also an auctioneer and realtor.

Josh and his wife, Katie, live on 120 acres where they oversee a portion of Dearl’s land and stock. Josh also works at Lowe's in Grove, while Katie is an pre-kindergarten/early head start teacher in Grove.

Laying the foundation

In 1974, Dearl began as a ranch manager for TLD Ranch on Brush Creek. In 1980, a portion of the ranch was purchased by the late Walter Hall. 

That sale, which became known as the Hidden Valley Ranch, gave Dearl an opportunity to continue to serve as a ranch manager for both it and the Delaware County Ranch (another portion of the previous TLD Ranch).

In 1978, Dearl took his two-year degree from Northeast A&M in Miami and continued his education at the University of Arkansas in Fayetteville and Oklahoma State University. 

In 1980 he became the ag education instructor at Jay High School - a position he filled until spring 2016.

Rhonda, a graduate of Northeastern State University in Tahlequah, began teaching in Jay in 1978. She retired in 2011 as one of the district's reading specialists after teaching fifth, fourth and second grade, as well as kindergarten.

Together the family owns approximately 500 acres in the Brush Creek area. They lease or own 800 acres within the surrounding area. 

In addition to raising cattle, the Cunninghams also raise quarter horses. The Cunningham family horse sale takes place every September in Locust Grove.

"All I've ever wanted to do is raise cattle and horses," Dearl said. "I taught school to support the farm."

Dearl said life on the farm taught him to value hard work.

"It doesn't end," Dearl said. "There's always something waiting for you to do. But I enjoy it. It's what I want to do."

Rhonda agreed. 

"I've always loved living down in the valley [along Brush Creek]," Rhonda said. "It was cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. I've always enjoyed the scenery and liked living where you have rolling hills."

Rhonda said the land gave her four boys a good place to roam as they grew up. 

"They would take off on the horses, there was enough land," Rhonda said. "They would strip the saddles off and swim the horses in the creek."

While the couple joke there's not much free time when living and working on a ranch, they have begun taking trips.

This summer the entire family – minus Katie and Josh – took five campers on a 10-day trip to Jackson Hole, Wyoming. 

Eventually, Dearl said, he would like to travel to the Calgary Stampede in Canada. 

Dearl said he plans to keep on ranching, with a goal of buying more land adjacent to their ranch if possible.

"I'll just keep on doing what I'm doing," Dearl said with a grin. "I'm in debt too deep to back out now."