It's a mystery as old as the 117th World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo itself.
And that's the mystery: just how old is the 117th World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo?
Rim country resident Pat Randall has dug up a piece of evidence that runs contrary to popular history and is as hard to ignore as a dead body in the middle of the room: the official program from "Payson's Great Annual Home Coming & World Famed 38th Annual Rodeo" ... held in 1931.
That would make the upcoming rodeo the 108th edition, not the 117th.
"You better believe I think that program is accurate," said long-time local resident Randall, whose grandfather moved to the Rim country in 1898 and whose great-great-great grandfather arrived in Tonto Basin "way back before that."
"Why would those people lie about the number of rodeos they'd had back in 1931? It doesn't just say it's the 38th rodeo in one place in the program; it said it in three places. So I don't think it's an error. And if this had been a misprint, my mother wouldn't have kept the program for years and years and years. She would have written a note on it saying, 'This is wrong.'"
Whether or not the Rim country's premiere audience-grabber was actually initiated in 1884 is a debate that's been going for years, of course and it is most often fueled by residents of Prescott, who have long claimed to hold the "World's Oldest Rodeo" on their turf while disputing the value and/or validity of the "continuous" disclaimer in the Payson rodeo's title.
"Prescott's claim is valid only in that they formalized their rodeo as professional in 1888 with prizes and official recognition," area historian Stan Brown has explained in the past. "Furthermore, Prescott broke its series during World War II, while Payson never missed a year. For this reason, Payson boasts 'The World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo.'"
But if Randall's original-copy 1931 program published as an issue of the "Gila County Pioneer" is to be trusted, the Payson rodeo began kicking up dust in 1893, five years after Prescott's.
A major part of the difficulty in solving a mystery that's more than a century old is in finding eye-witnesses. There aren't any left. And based on the Roundup's research, historical accounts of the rodeo didn't become common until the late 1950s, by which time all documentation seemed to pretty much spring from a single source whatever that was. No other program from the 1930s or from the next few decades which followed could be found by press time.
The best that local historians can do is guess as to which starting date is correct.
"Oh, dear Lord," sighed Anna Mae Deming, the Rim country's legendary weatherwoman and co-author of the book, "An Illustrated History of the Rim Country."
"I don't think that program you have is authentic," she said. "My dad came here in 1897, and he saw his first rodeo well, it wasn't really a rodeo. It was a gathering of people and maybe a few horse races and some roping. I never heard him say anything about bull riding. But everyone who could say for sure is in Payson Pioneer Cemetery. They really are.
"We've got to be ahead of Prescott, no matter what happens," Deming said. "Stick with 117. Go for the longest time. I think 1884 is a good date. I think that when you start disputing, it just creates hard feelings."
Bill Armstrong, the long-time organizer of the World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo, is clearly familiar with those hard feelings.
"I don't even want to go there, because there's so many people getting sued and arguing over that issue," Armstrong said. "This has been an ongoing question for the 25 years I've been working the rodeo. It's something I wouldn't want to dabble in. I don't think it's a good idea to even bring it up right now."
Ninety-one-year-old author and local icon Marguerite Noble doesn't mind discussing the subject. There's only one problem, she admits: "I have no idea what the correct date might be. Have you talked to Stan Brown? He is the one who could figure it out."
"That's the only publication in existence that suggests the rodeo was started later than 1884," said Brown, a Rim country historian, Roundup contributor, and historical columnist for The Rim Review. "And that (1931 program) came out of Gila County; it didn't come locally. This was just some guy, Carl Paulson, who tried to start a little paper.
"The other historical articles in the program are so full of errors that I'm not surprised that the dates are wrong, too. I wouldn't trust anything I read in that thing."
More reliable, Brown thinks, are some oral histories of the rodeo he has collected, wherein "old-timers talk about 1884 and clearly document the true date."
One of those was printed in the Mogollon Summer Guide in 1978. Writer Ralph Fisher quotes Mrs. Howard Childer, whose husband was an early Payson rancher, as maintaining that "Payson's first rodeo was held in a midtown pasture in September of 1884."
In the same article, Fisher writes about Charlie Chilson, a member of one of the area's oldest families, who "told me in an interview that his pioneer father, John C. Chilson, reconfirmed the 1884 starting date for the Payson rodeo many times."
Fisher also quotes from the Sept. 2, 1886 issue of a Tucson publication called "Hoofs and Horns":
"Thanks to Clara T. Woody, in whose honor the Globe Historical Museum is named, we have much data on the 1886 Payson Rodeo ... (She sent me) a list of pioneer settlers who attended the Payson rodeo in 1886 street rodeo and race, and I have in my file the original cardboard list of the 88 men so named ...
"Now how could they have been writing about the Payson rodeo in 1886 if it didn't start until 1893?" Brown asks.
The oldest Payson Roundup that could be found in the Northern Gila County Genealogical Society's library that indicates the age of the rodeo, was dated 1956, and refers to the 72nd annual Payson rodeo. That would put the beginning year of the event at 1884.
In August of 1977, Roundup reporter Rick Reynolds wrote a history of the Payson rodeo which included the following paragraph:
"Some of the people attending the first rodeo in 1884 were Mark McDonald, W.J. Randall, Frank Randall Sr., and Bert Randall Sr., according to Howard Childers (McDonald was his father-in-law). Charlie Chilson said his father told him he attended that very first event and Chilson remembers it was 1884."
"I'd put these oral histories against that silly other thing any day," Brown said.
Unsurprisingly, Randall would not.
"First of all, W.J. Randall was my husband's grandfather," she said. "He was nine years old in 1884. Frank and Bert were his brothers; Frank was five and Bert would have been two. I would almost lay my life on the line that they did not come to the Payson rodeo if there was one."
Randall also researched the Internet periodical archives of the University of Arizona in Tucson, and came up with this information: the very first issue of Hoof and Horns, from which writer Ralph Fisher quoted that 1886 article, was published in Tucson in July of 1931.
Of course, there could have been another publication titled Hoofs and Horns printed in 19th-century Tucson. An attempt to divine that answer on the Internet was not fruitful; there are dozens of local, regional and business publications now in circulation under that same, oddly popular name.
The Roundup challenges its readers to help solve this mystery. As you shake off the dust of this year's World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo, take a look around your attics, garages and basements. If you have any definitive proof of when the August Doin's actually began particularly rodeo programs that predate the controversial 1931 issue give us a call at (928) 474-5251.