When the Clay County Pioneer Association presents its Pioneer queen and duchesses Thursday night at 7 p.m. at Tex Rickard Arena, it will be the climax of months of work, and a tribute to the heritage that Clay County holds dear.
The roots of this tradition go deep. “We have such a strong heritage in Clay County,” Clay County Pioneer Association secretary Judy Davidson said. “A lot of counties have let that go. Everyone here cares so much about honoring our pioneers.”
The selection process for the queen and her court begins months before the Reunion, in March. Davidson said that representatives from each section of the county — northeast, northwest, southeast, southwest and central — come up with possible names from each area. The group considers the age of the candidate, their history in the county and their activities. It is preferred that the queen be native born and at least in her 70s. The honor of queen is rotated among the five areas. Exceptions have been made on the queen being native born based on the candidate’s contributions to the county.
Tawana Fleming was an exception in 2010. She wasn’t born in Clay County and she wasn’t raised here, but the wife of Nat Fleming had given much of her time to the Pioneer Reunion, serving on the entertainment committee for many years.
“At first I said I couldn’t do it,” Fleming said she told Deanna Choate, the Petrolia area representative, when asked if she would accept the honor. “I was never so shocked when they asked me because there were many that were more deserving.”
After all the candidates have agreed to serve, dresses are chosen. Davidson said that up until a few years ago, the dresses were all handmade so there were choices to be made for material and fittings to go through. Now, David’s Bridal takes care of the gowns. Davis Funeral Home has picked up a tradition begun by Paul Hawkins by decorating the queen’s float to match the dresses. This year, for the first time that Davidson remembers, there are two colors of dresses.
The committee hosts a tea in June when the ladies wear their dresses for the first time for photos. But the who’s who of Pioneer royalty is kept a closely guarded secret until the presentation at the first night of the rodeo. Davidson laughed and said that there have been brief rifts in a queen or duchess’s family because the secret wasn’t shared.
Barbara Mayo worked with many of the duchesses and queens through her years of service with the Clay County Pioneer Association board. “People go to all this trouble because they love to do it,” she said. “It was a privilege to work with all the ladies. It’s the pioneer way to make them all feel like they’re queens.”
And the ladies do feel special. Fleming said that Choate treated her like a queen, straightening her dress, getting her water, anything she wanted. “You are really treated like royalty,” she said.
Billie Bevering of Charlie was a member of the queen’s court in 1996. She said being a Pioneer duchess was an honor. “I felt honored and was happy to be involved,” she said. Bevering said that she wouldn’t forget riding into the arena on the float and hearing Nat Fleming call out her name. She and Fleming graduated from Byers High School in together in 1938, and he mentioned that in introducing her to the crowd.
The dresses will always remind the ladies of their time as a queen or duchess. Gladys Holland, who died Sept. 4 at age 89, was a duchess in the late 1990s. She asked to be buried in her dress, and her family honored that request.
Davidson said that there is a special story about this year’s dress that may be a first for the queen, and one that shows just how much the Pioneer royalty tradition means.
Editor’s note: Each year, the Davis family and employees of Davis Funeral Home spend countless hours building the Queen’s float.