It was three years ago, just before Halloween, that the spookiest event of all hit Payson. The historic Winchester Saloon burned down. It was an infamous conclusion to a place where some of Payson's happiest days had been lived.
This spot of earth at the foot of the Pine Road (today's McLane headed north from Main Street) had been the social center of the community for over 100 years. In the 1890s, Guy Barkdoll built an adobe house, a dance hall and a livery stable on the site and spreading east to the present Ox Bow Inn. Folks coming to town for the weekend dances would put their horses up in the livery stable, and wander up and down Main Street to meet their neighbors, imbibe at the saloons and eat at the restaurants.
The dance hall burned down, and Barkdoll rebuilt it only to have it burn down again in 1923. This time, it was rumored the fire started from a moonshine still in the basement. Barkdoll did not rebuild this time, but in 1928, sold the land to Bill Packard. Packard immediately erected a dance hall, which soon became the scene of many a festival, including the tradition of the community Christmas Tree.
Julia Randall, who arrived in Payson in 1910 at age 2, recalled her youth.
"We had our annual Christmas Tree there. All the families took their presents down to the dance hall and put them under the tree. Then everyone gathered on Christmas Eve and opened them."
Packard had actually constructed two buildings, a saloon and the dance hall. The hall had a floor made from hard maple, purchased from a bowling alley in Globe. Over the next seven decades that floor became the scene for every conceivable activity in the village. Saturday night dances, box socials, school carnivals and dramas, graduation exercises, movies, church worship services, funerals and weddings all took their turn. Some years, it was a skating rink, and from 1930 to 1938, it was the gymnasium for high school basketball games. Remnants of the lines on the basketball court lingered almost until the building's demise. In season, political rallies were held there, and Governor Howard Pyle, Senator Barry Goldwater, and Governor Ernest McFarland, each in their time, held forth for Rim Country residents.
In 1935, Packard sold the buildings to Mart McDonald and his daughter and son-in-law Rose and Howard Childers. The community center continued, but the saloon was renamed the Elks Bar and CafHoward tended bar while Rose cooked the meals and then went over to play the piano for the dances. Howard's famous elk-kill was mounted and hung up over the bar, with a cigarette hanging from its mouth. Occasionally the elk head would emit cigarette smoke, to the wonderment of all at the bar.
The Childers' son, Ed, recalled how as a growing boy he learned to gamble in the dusty basement. There also were several rooms down there which, rumor had it, were inhabited by girls from out of town who operated their trade during rodeo days.
In the early 1940s it was sold again, and during the next 30 years, a series of owners saw it decline to more rowdy scenes, including several murders that took place among drinking patrons.
Owner Polly Brown, the tough widow who had ranched in the area all her life, held a weekly picture show before the Saturday night dance. Behind the bar she had two pigs, to which she would feed the leftover beer and they became very fat. She also confiscated the steel pucks from her shuffleboard game when there was danger the cowboys would throw them at each other.
In the 1960s, other owners renamed it The Gay 90s Bar. A few years after that, John and Susie Greenleaf purchased it, along with their brother Rans. They restored the large 6,400-square-foot building and desired to upgrade its reputation. The old maple dance floor was renewed to a lustrous sheen, and a western boomtown front was added. The place was now renamed The Winchester Saloon. John was shot and killed by a drunken patron in the parking lot in 1982, but Rans carried on the business until 1984. The building then became an auction and antique warehouse, and in 1995 was converted into a feed store.
It burned for the last time Oct. 26, 1997.
The old building had withstood many a trauma, even the 77-inch snow of 1967. While roofs all over the Rim country collapsed, the Elks Bar stood firm. Jim Deming knew why, saying, "Happy memories held it together."
Upon hearing it had burned, Ed Chilson recalled those happy memories. "Until death stilled them, there were two beings who never missed anything that took place at the Elks. Both were friendly to all, totally harmless and, ironically, confirmed teetotalers. They were Bert Slater and Jim Deming's dog Jiggs. When Bert wasn't publishing the Payson Roundup, he was organizing a square dance at the Elks. When Jiggs wasn't attending a funeral, a wedding or a ball game, he was going to school with the rest of us and then bidding fond adieu to patrons departing the Elks. The dog never slept."
Nor do the memories Paysonites have of the place, whether it was called Packards, the Elks, the Gay 90s or the Winchester. Anyone with roots in the Rim country from the 1890s to the 1990s will look fondly at the foot of McLane and Main, and remember days gone by.