Thanks in part to a group of students at Payson Elementary School, the sawmill whistle that Rim country residents set their watches by for many years will be heard once again.
The students, fourth- and fifth-graders, in the classes of PES teachers Carolyn Crisp and Roger Rohrbach, engaged in a letter writing campaign to convince the whistle's current owner, Jimmy Connolly, and Gordon Whiting, vice president of property management for Kaibab Industries, to finalize their discussions so the whistle can sound from atop Sawmill Crossing. The new theater/shopping complex occupies 14 acres south of Main Street and west of the Beeline Highway where the Kaibab sawmill, and before that, Owens Brothers Lumber, were located.
Until the sawmill shut down in 1993, the shrill blast of the whistle could be heard throughout much of Payson, carrying a distance of up to several miles when weather conditions were just right. The whistle was blown to announce the start of the work day at 7 a.m., lunch at noon, and the end of the work day at 5 p.m.
Connolly came into possession of the homemade whistle in 1995, when the sawmill was being torn down.
"They were auctioning off a lot of stuff," Connolly said, "so I went down and asked for the whistle. They just gave it to me."
The part that actually makes the sound is a simple device fashioned from a foot-long brass cylinder some four inches in diameter.
"It looks a lot like a piece of an artillery shell," Connolly said.
He said he made sure the whistle wasn't destroyed because it has special meaning for him. Connolly's father used to blow it when he worked at the sawmill.
"I grew up without a watch," Connolly said. "We used to live by that whistle. My mother always told me, 'When you hear that whistle, you come on home.'"
After Connolly gained possession of the whistle, he turned it over to Norman Dudley for refurbishing. It was Dudley's uncle, Kerm Owens, who originally built it.
"He made it out of scrap steel back in 1950 or '51," Dudley said. "Hooked up to a (compressed air) tank, it weighs 1,000 pounds, but otherwise you can hold it in your hand."
Dudley, whose employer, Energy West, has been very accommodating about the refurbishing, said he took the whistle down to Sawmill Crossing and blew it at the grand opening last week. "It sounded great," he said.
Connolly had already been talking to Whiting about installing the whistle on the roof of Sawmill Crossing, but the letters from the students gave the project new impetus.
Connolly was especially impressed by a letter from fourth-grader Justin Styer:
"I understand that only you have the sawmill whistle," Justin wrote. "I also understand that when the sawmill was open the whistle went off at noon.
"Would you consider giving the whistle to the theater? Well, I think it would be a great piece of history. Because at about noon we go outside to play and every time the whistle went off I could think good ol' Mr. Connolly gave that whistle to the theater to blow.""I liked all your letters," Connolly told the students in a surprise visit to their classrooms, "but Justin's was my favorite."
He also showed the students how the whistle worked:
"It's a lot like blowing across the top of a bottle, but it's connected to this big pressure tank," he said. "When you pull the handle, it lets 250 gallons of air out of a two-inch pipe."
Connolly suspects the school got wind of the whistle from his son Carter, a fifth-grader at PES. "We talked about it at home, and I imagine he told his teacher about it," Connolly said.
Whiting also got a set of letters. One from fourth-grader Whitney Mathews read:
"Our class was wondering if you could put the whistle on the theater and blow it every afternoon. We are going to write Mr. Connolly too so you don't think you're the only one being tormented ...
"I hope you and him will be OK with it," she wrote. "If we can, we will see if it bothers anyone. If it does, we can take it down."
Whiting said Connolly wants to retain ownership, but has agreed to loan him the whistle "for as long as we want to blow it. And Norm Dudley is donating a 500-gallon tank for the compressed air," Whiting said.
The target for getting the whistle mounted and operational is January.
"My structural engineer has to determine where on the roof it can be safely located, then we have to run the electrical and figure out the automatic timers," Whiting said.
He added that the whistle will blow three times a day, at 7 a.m., noon and 5 p.m., as long as people don't mind hearing it.
"We've even checked with the town to make sure we won't be violating any noise ordinance," Whiting said.