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Dees family celebrates 25th reunion
The Dees family celebrated its 25th annual "John Dee Da" family reunion over Labor Day weekend at the Dees Brothers Ranch.
About 300 family members and friends attended the reunion, which honors the hard work the family has tirelessly performed to sustain their renowned cattle ranch.
"We are grateful to be able to continue this tradition for all these years and look forward to the next generation taking over for many more reunions to come," said Felix Dees, noting the reunion has become a "tradition of love, unity and the remembrance of those whose lives became our legacy."
The grand finale of the reunion was a huge barbecue Sunday. Over the years, many prominent Yuma-area farming families and friends have gathered to share beef and goat, along with rattlesnake and fish from the nearby Colorado River.
We are "cooking all the time" during the two-day shindig, said Alex Dees, owner of the ranch. "We have a big ol’ barbecue pit out there."
Members of the Dees family heading off to college received money for their studies as part of the Dees Family Scholarship founded by Alex and Felix’s mother, Allily Dees.
"It was her strong belief in education that prompted the family to make it possible for each of her grandchildren to attend college," Felix said.
The reunion is an excellent way to connect the younger generations of the Dees family to their storied roots, Alex said. "I think it is important to the young kids to know where their ancestry came from."
Rufus Dees brought his family, including his eldest son, John, to Yuma about 90 years ago.
"My dad (John) was born in Oklahoma, but his folks are from South Carolina," Alex said, noting Rufus had moved to the Yuma area looking for work, most likely in the 1920s.
"Most of those guys, when they got into the farming business, they came out and started sharecropping. In those days that’s all they could get. They didn’t have any money in the bank or any collateral."
Being African-Americans, the family experienced more freedom in Arizona than Back East, Alex continued. "Out here it was different."
John spent his youth working for his father, Rufus, in the fields and attended Yuma Union High School, where he met his future wife, Allily, the daughter of Melvin Crisp. The Crisp family had moved to the Somerton area from Oklahoma to work in agriculture.
Allily had attended the Somerton public school system, completed the eighth grade and continued her education at Yuma High through the 11th grade.
She was introduced to John by his sister, Willie Irene, and the two were married on Jan. 7, 1933. They established their first home on 40 acres in the North Gila Valley, where they farmed various types of agriculture, raised hogs and began having children, beginning with Alex.
Growing up in the 1940s and 1950s, Alex experienced racism firsthand, although it wasn’t as severe as in the Deep South.
"We played with all the kids and everybody was friends and ate together. But then as I got older, there were places in town that had signs that you couldn’t go in and eat. We used to order food through the back."
Alex wonders why "if you had the money, why you couldn’t go in there, sit down and eat some food. But that’s how it worked. At my age, you can remember that."
Even though discrimination against African-Americans has faded over the decades, "it is still out there," Alex said. "But it is better. We have come a long ways. Even Yuma, but we’ve got a long ways coming."
In May 1950, John and Allily purchased squatters rights and moved to 160 acres of undeveloped and destitute land that was later named The Island. The Dees Brothers Ranch is still at the same location.
It was nicknamed The Island because at the time, the Colorado River often changed course, leaving pockets of land that resembled islands, Felix explained.
In the center of the farm stood a small unfinished wood-framed house amid a growth of cottonwood trees. The house had no running water and no electricity.
Before he could provide water for the farm without the help of a neighboring family, John had to sink a well. He selected a location at the highest elevation of his land, had a well dug there and installed a pump.
The pump allowed for the creation of a swimming hole for his children. The well is still in use today, and John’s progeny continue to swim in the watering hole during the annual family reunions.
In the early ’70s, Alex assumed the responsibility of running the farm. "I came back because I wanted to work with my dad."
Using the business skills that his father had passed on to him and the experience from previous employers, he turned it into a cattle ranch that is still successful today and known nationally for quality.
Alex raises Brangus, a popular breed of beef cattle that is a hybrid of Brahman and Angus.
Now in his 70s, Alex hopes a new generation of his family will someday take the reins of the ranch to keep the family tradition going after he dies.
For now, it’s business as usual. Alex and one of his brothers, along with a couple of hired hands, spend their days toiling under the sun to produce the finest beef they can. "Certain things will never change," said Alex.
Chris McDaniel can be reached at email@example.com or 539-6849.