Park once housed Grand Ole Opry stars

Linda Hicks Published October 27, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
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Linda Hicks

From the left, Martha West, Kim Brainard, Eddie Bartley and Connie Bartley jam at the Chili Fest Oct. 11.

In its heyday, Lester Flatt Memorial Park in Otto was a mecca for Grand Ole Opry stars.

They may have rolled into the park aboard bright and shiny tour buses as strangers to the owners, Odell “O.G.” and Elizabeth Kuykendall, but most pulled out as friends.

“We always invited them into our house like they were family. I have cooked for many of them,” said Elizabeth Kuykendall, who has been managing the family operation since the death of her husband on March 9, 1995. “We got to know them, liked most of them and became friends with them.”

Kuykendall said her husband’s death was unexpected. He had several shows lined up and was making plans to have a successful year.

“He came home from working all day and watched the news and Wheel of Fortune and fell out with a heart attack,” she said. “He died on the way to the hospital.”

Naming a handful of well-known musicians who have visited, she listed George Jones, Ricky Skaggs, The Judds, Bill Monroe and Louisiana Governor Jimmy Davis, who died in 2000. A country music and gospel singer in the Country Music Hall of Fame and

Louisiana Music Hall of Fame, Davis was one guest who always stayed at their house. He was a good man and great entertainer, she said.

The park’s namesake is the late Lester Flatt, a bluegrass guitarist and mandolinist best known for his collaboration with banjo picker Earl Scruggs. Flatt died in May 1979, about the same time O.G. Kuykendall began work on the park. He knew Flatt well, Kuykendall said, and received permission from Flatt’s family to name the park after him.

At the 14th annual Bluegrass and Gospel Chili Fest, held on Oct. 8-12, there were about 75 in attendance at the Friday-night event.

A 22-acre lake was a backdrop to the park, where several camped. Underneath one of the two large pavilions, a chili supper, complete with a smorgasbord of desserts, was spread out on tables. In the background, a variety of instruments were being played and there was some singing. A large stage, under a second pavilion, remained empty. That’s where many big-name entertainers have stood, Kuykendall said.

“All of them were his favorite,” she said. “He just loved the music and always had the best groups he could have. Now, a lot of his favorites have passed on, though.”

She said her husband didn’t play a musical instrument but grew up around Jasper and loved to hear a “good fiddle.” That is what sparked his desire to become a promoter, she said. Many know him from other venues, she said, including Barton Coliseum in Little Rock, where he booked shows prior to building the park.

Most attending the recent “pick and grin” had seen each other at previous park events. Some said they had been coming to the park since the first show was held in July 1980. One of those was Eddie Bartley of El Paso. With the ability to play five instruments, he said he enjoys the jams. One of his favorite memories, however, is being at the park when the Stonemans performed. Bartley isn’t sure of the exact date but remembers the banjo music and the antics of the comedic Lonnie Stoneman.

“One eye went one way, and the other went the other way. She had a big gap between her teeth. She sat beside me and joked with me about being solid and running off with her. They were just fun, regular people.”

Mary Ellen “Doodle” Wortham also attended the first show, and most of them since then, even though for about 16 years she lived in Oklahoma and traveled back to Otto for festivals. The first trip to the park, she said, included her mother and dad, who have since died.

“I just love it,” she added. “I loved it then. I love it now. I love being here with everyone.”

She recalled that a white baby-grand piano was always pulled onto the stage for musicians to play.

Norma Ray of Conway is a “regular.” She said she and her husband, Glyndal, now deceased, camped at the park during the festivals in their motor homes, “all five of them.” The performers, she said, were “Grand Ole Opry people.” Rain or shine, she said, the crowds were large, with people standing, sitting in lawn chairs and even lying on blankets on the ground.

George Jones, she said, was one of the most memorable performers and probably the one with the shortest show. She was there when he visited the park the day before and told the Kuykendall family the stage was too small and refused to perform on it. She said O.G. Kuykendall worked all night building a larger stage to accommodate the country icon.

“He performed three songs and walked off the stage,” Ray said. Bluegrass musician and comedian Little Roy Lewis also performed at the park, giving a great performance, she said.

These days, Kuykendall said, the park sees few headliners, and there’s no charge for attending the jams. The entertainment is more about “picking and grinning” and less about the well-known musicians. It’s a place where anyone can perform with other musicians, as well as spend time with friends. That’s just fine in Kuykendall’s book.

“I’ll just keep doing this as long as I can,” she said. “It is what my husband would have wanted. He loved it. He dreamed it, and he did it. I am doing the best I can to make his dream live.”

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