Two Family Histories Tell Payson's Story


Jesse Johnson, 82, and Dr. Christian Risser V, 58, are of different generations and barely know each other.

But the criss-crossing of their pioneer-families' lives and histories weaves a tapestry of Payson throughout the 20th century.

Johnson's mother, Ola Jane Franklin Wilbanks Lazear, was born in Star Valley May 3, 1896, and lived in Payson, Young or the Tonto Basin area her entire life.

In 1914, Ola married William R. Wilbanks and raised five children -- all born after an extremely pregnant Ola rode on horseback, round trip, from Star Valley to Payson so her babies could be delivered by the only doctor within 100 miles.

That man was Dr. Risser's grandfather -- Dr. Christian Risser III, Payson's only physician in the 1910s and '20s, and almost certainly Arizona's only ex-Pennsylvania-school-teacher-turned-doctor/cattle rancher.

Risser came to Window Rock, Ariz. in 1999 to work at the government's hospital for Indians. He searched the entire state, his grandson said, before settling in Payson, which he liked for the people, the hunting, the fishing and the cattle ranching opportunities. He bought two ranches: 150 acres in what is now central Payson, and another 150-acre spread by the Elk's Lodge.

There were few decent roads at the time; Dr. Risser made most of his house calls on horseback. Sometimes, he drove as far as he could in his Model T, then borrowed a horse from the nearest homesteader to finish the trip.

Dr. Risser's son, "Christy," was born in 1918. He would eventually become Dr. Christian Risser IV, and had a Payson grade-school playmate who would later be called Jesse Johnson.

Jesse Johnson remembers Christy well. "He used to educate us girls," she said with a wicked smile. "We'd be in class and he'd keep telling us things we shouldn't know. He'd look up things in the doctor books and tell us."

Jesse eventually married, had a daughter, and moved to Camp Verde. A two-time widow, she returned to Payson when her mother died here in 1985. Ola was eulogized in the Roundup as the town's oldest native. She was 89 years old.

She still lives in Ola's house, one of Payson's oldest. The only thing that's different today is the yard, where Ola's garden and flowers and fruit trees made the place look like a southwestern Oz.

"It's all dead," Jesse said with no small hint of sadness. "The water shortage killed it. The well's been dry for years."

In her youth, Jesse said, a trip to the Valley was an all-day excursion, as long as you left very early in the morning. Otherwise, it would be a two-day trip.

Jesse knows the road well. When she was 16, she went to Phoenix with some friends. Once there, the designated driver disappeared -- and Jesse got behind the wheel of a Model T for the very first time to drive home.

"The kids who were with me were scared to death. And I was scared, too. When we got to the bottom of (the still notoriously dangerous) Fish Creek Hill, that was enough for them. They all got out," Jesse said, laughing.

Most of her early days, however, weren't quite so exciting.

"There was nothing here, so there was really nothing to do," Jesse said. "Mostly, we did chores like our mothers told us to, and played lots of hide-and-seek. The grade school didn't have any sports, so we never did any of that.

"But we always manged to have lots of fun."

Dr. Risser V

The modern-day Dr. Christian Risser never met his grandfather, who died seven years before the youngest Dr. Risser was born in 1941. The eldest Dr. Risser died at the age of 54; he had pneumonia, and the world had yet to discover antibiotics.

Jesse attended the funeral.

"It was the first time I had ever viewed a body," she remembered. "The casket was open and I sat in the front row, so I couldn't avoid it. But all of us kids were so sad. We just cried and cried. He was such a nice man."

Risser's father, Christy, was born in a house which still stands on the northwest corner of Oak and Main Street. Risser himself was born in 1941 in St. Louis, where his father was attending medical school.

Young Dr. Risser completed his own education at Georgetown and the University of Tennessee Medical College, spent 10 years as an Air Force flight surgeon, and in 1980, joined his father's Valley practice.

One day he heard a patient mention how desperately Payson needed an eye doctor. . Soon, he was making the Valley-to-Payson commute once every two or three weeks to treat local patients. Now he has residences in both places, and spends three days of every week working at his S. Beeline office.

"My father and grandfather are both buried here, so I feel a very strong connection to Payson," Dr. Risser said. "Many of my patients will reminisce about my grandfather, and that's really kind of special to me.

"I didn't know him, so in a way, I get to meet him through the stories the other residents tell me."

Such as:

Dr. Risser's grandfather would occasionally accept small barrels of homemade whiskey in exchange for his services. To keep the liquid gold safe from thieves and scoundrels, he'd bury it in the yard.

One time, his son, Christy, secretly watched him plant a keg. When Dad left the area, nine-year-old Christy dug a hole down to the whiskey, removed the cork, and siphoned a number of servings into a bottle -- which he took to Payson Grade School and sold by the shot.

"For punishment, he had to milk the cows," Dr. Risser said.

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