Working together, growing separately
By the time Oklahoma became a state in 1907, Bob Bolay's grandparents, Joe and Anna Bolay, had already been farming near the town of Perry for 14 years. The Bolays, along with over 100,000 other people, homesteaded in the Cherokee Strip Land Run of 1893. They spent the first winter in a hand-dug cave on land that Bob's sister now owns and that Bob farms.
That dugout, remnants of which are still faintly visible, holds a special place in Bob's heart. It's a testimony to the grit and determination that have sustained him and his family as they farm in a region known for climatic challenges. By some accounts, only 20% to 30% of the settlers who filed claims stayed on the land for six months, a requirement to get a deed to the land.
Forty-some years later, Bob's parents weathered the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. Like his ancestors, Bob, an energetic 78, has had a few run-ins with Mother Nature. In the early 1950s, when Bob and his wife, Juanita, were just getting started farming, one dry year followed another. "The dust was so thick there were days I couldn't see the barn," Bob says. He worked as a roughneck in the oil fields to stay solvent.
The Bolays benefited from Oklahoma's oil in another way during the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, when an oil well on one of their farms provided extra income. "We had bought land and would probably have had to sell some of it if not for the oil revenue," Bob says. In 1982, Juanita was elected to a position with Farm Bureau that was part paid and part volunteer. She continued with that until 1995.
While the Bolays have never been able to depend on the weather, they have always been able to depend on each other. Even so, getting started in farming has never been easy for family members. Bob's dad ran a grocery store for several years before starting to farm. Bob scratched his way into farming after two years in college and two years in the military. "We had a hay baling business and raised chickens," he recalls. "We did anything we thought would make a dollar."
Bob's dad loaned him equipment and cosigned for his first bank loan, but he told Bob he ought to be on his own. Bob farmed close to home until 1962 when he and Juanita moved onto her parent's farm 9 miles away, where they still live. When Bob's dad developed cancer, he sold a quarter-section each to Bob and his sister. Bob's mom's remaining land plus the principal and interest payments from her children provided her with income.
Bob and Juanita took a similar approach to getting started farming with their own three sons, who range in age from 50 to 54. "They grew up on the farm and had the same genes we have," says Bob. "They wanted to farm."
But college came first. "We felt they should go to college, and they all agreed," says Bob. College for the Bolay family means nearby Oklahoma State University (OSU). Bob and Juanita went there. Their sons -- Mike, Brent, and Kurt -- all graduated from there. So did their only daughter, Brenda Bolay-Hulette, who lives in Atlanta. Five grandchildren have graduated from OSU, and two more will graduate next year.