Best Storyteller Gets A Blast From The Past

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The fun part of interviewing the Rim country's best storytellers is the very nature of the beast: All you have to do is wind 'em up and let 'em go.

Stan Brown, who was named this year's best local storyteller in the Roundup's annual Best of Payson readers' poll, is no exception.

Born and raised in Chicago, Brown bears at least a passing resemblance to another prolific Chicagoan poet of the common man Carl Sandburg.

But Brown and his wife, Ruth, left Sandburg's "City of the Big Shoulders" in 1958.

"I was in the ministry, and I left to join the staff at Central Methodist Church in Phoenix," he said.

After five years, Stan was transferred to Long Beach, Calif.

"But in '63, the year we got transferred, we decided we needed some roots, so we purchased some land here on the Upper Verde River," he said. "It was part of the old John Belluzzi farm; he was one of the earliest settlers around here. There were apple trees his wife had planted back in 1876 that were still producing."

Brown spent eight years in Long Beach, and another 20 as pastor of a church in Tucson. But whenever he had a little free time, Brown and his family would head to the Rim country.

"We built a cabin on our land, and for over 30 years we vacationed there and brought our kids and grandkids there," he said.

The Rim country proved an ideal place for a man with a yen for history.

A sense of history

"I'd majored in U. S. history at Northwestern University. I just got very interested in this country. I love the history of the Indian people."

In 1991, Brown finally got the opportunity to indulge his passion full time.

"After we retired we moved up here," he said. "Eventually the 17-mile trip into town got the best of us, so we sold our cabin and now live in Payson.

"One of the beautiful things about retirement is that you can be your own boss and pursue your hobbies. We're very active in our church, but mostly I pursue this history thing.

"You never know what you're going to find around here," he said. "Everywhere you go there are remnants of people. When you think that people lived in Arizona for 10,000 years, there's probably not an inch of ground that wasn't inhabited at one time."

Besides writing a weekly column for The Rim Review, Brown is the Rim Country Museum's historian and archivist. He was even named town historian by the Payson Town Council.

History lessons

Why is history important, anyway?

"Besides just the plain fun of it, it's a humanizing force," Brown explained. "It helps you to realize that you aren't the first person to experience whatever, that other people have had to cope with the things you're coping with, and that gives encouragement and hope.

"I think, too, it's important to have a sense of 'rootage.' Where do we come from? I may move in here as an outsider, but I can feel more quickly at home if I know I have moved into a history, something that has a background.

Preserving the past

What about our Wild West cowboy heritage? Are we doing all we can to preserve it and make it part of our present and future?

"The town government is getting a conscience," Brown said, "and that's what the Green Valley redevelopment is all about to try and preserve this area and restore it.

"A redeveloped Main Street is one of my fondest wishes, because I think it would capture all the other things. We need to repair the infrastructure, preserve the old historic structures, and invite in interesting businesses. What the no-growth people don't understand is that we need planned growth. We need economic development to bring in the tax dollars that will underwrite the cost of all the rest of us."

This town wasn't built to last

Why doesn't Main Street have more of the old Victorian houses and other antique-looking buildings that Prescott has?

"Because the people who settled Prescott came from the East, and the people who settled Payson came from Texas," Brown said. "It wasn't until the second half of the 1870s, after the Apaches were subdued, that this area could be settled. There was drought in Texas and the fencing laws also drove them out. They wanted open range.

"Prescott, on the other hand, was established as the territorial capital of Arizona. All the officers for the territory were presidential appointees from New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania. They brought that whole culture with them.

"And, of course, they built with brick in Prescott, so it didn't burn down. Almost every old building in the Rim country was made of ponderosa pine and burned down at one time or another."

Lights, camera, action

A Zane Grey film festival is one of the preservation projects Brown would like to develop. If, that is, we ever get a movie theater that can host it. But there are other roadblocks, too.

"We started looking for Zane Grey films, especially the ones that Grey himself did in this area," Brown said. "I've worked with Fox and Paramount and gone through the archives at UCLA, where they have one of the greatest film libraries in existence. None of those old films are left. They're all gone.

"We did find a second filming of 'To the Last Man.' Paramount filmed it in California, and it's a fascinating story. It was Shirley Temple's first film.

"They needed a little girl in a couple of scenes, including one where this pony came in while they were having a tea party. During the actual shooting the pony acted up, reared up, knocked the tea party over. Well, this little girl held her ground and dressed down that pony and got him out of there.

"The directors were so excited that they ran over to Paramount and said, 'You gotta put her under contract right now.' They didn't do it, so Fox stepped in and signed her.

"A few months later, Paramount needed a little girl for this new movie and they had to go rent her back. The movie was 'Little Miss Marker.'"

Sacred ground

What about the reputed spirituality of certain parts of the Rim country? Are there vortexes and sacred places here?

"Let's just agree there is a mystery," Brown began. "Let's look at it in my old context of a church, a sanctuary; where people have worshiped for generations, baptized their children, buried their loved ones, sat there week after week in prayer and meditation, and been brought into the presence of God.

"There is something special about that little piece of turf, an aura. There is a presence, and there is a mystery to this, maybe that human spirituality has a cumulative effect, and some sixth sense of ours picks up on it when we are in its presence.

"If that is true in an old church, why wouldn't it be true in an old ruin, where families have come and gone and births and deaths have occurred, in which case, this whole area is a sanctuary."

Heritage on the brink

One of Brown's current passions is closely related.

"The Tonto Apache people have all but lost their history and their heritage," he said. "(Tribal President) Vivian Burdette is doing what she can to save it, but it's an uphill climb. So my dream is to write the history of the Tonto Apaches in such a way that their young people get excited about it again.

"The Apache language is a wonderful language. To be able to take a word that long," he said, holding thumb and index finger about two inches apart, "and it can tell you a whole story. A single word can have maybe 15 different meanings, all depending on how you say it. It's a very rich language, and to lose that is a terrible thing."

Once, according to an old story, Carl Sandburg and a famous general were the guests of honor at a banquet. Without warning, the hostess announced that Sandburg would improvise a poem for the occasion.

Sandburg handled his predicament by responding, "Oh no, just have the general here fire a cannon."

Brown recently had a similar experience.

"One of the ranches around here that is steeped in history is the Doll Baby Ranch, and we know the owners there, the Armstrongs," Brown said. "They called the other day and said come on out for a celebration and steak dinner.

"In the middle of the evening, she suddenly calls on me as part of the program, and I was supposed to be prepared on the history of the Doll Baby Ranch.

"Fortunately, I was able to get up and wing it," he said with a laugh."

And that, of course, is the mark of a truly great storyteller.

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