Payson, Eloy To Duel Over Hall Of Fame

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"This place ain't big enough for the both of us."

A variation of that classic western movie line might be heard emanating from the Rim Country Museum if a showdown develops over rights to the Arizona Cowboy Hall of Fame.

As the Northern Gila County Historical Society, which also operates the museum, moves ahead with its plans to open a cowboy hall of fame on Payson's Main Street, a group in Eloy is trying to do the very same thing.

Fortunately, the historical society has legal title to the name "Arizona Cowboy Hall of Fame" from the state corporation commission.

"It was originally registered some years ago, when we first started working on the project," said Terry Morris, director of the Payson Public Library, who originally conceived the idea back in 1991. "When the project was delayed for a few years, the name lapsed. But (Historical Society Director) Sharesse Von Strauss took care of it."

Phyllis Windle, co-chairman of the Arizona Hall of Fame Museum Committee, confirmed that rights to the name have been secured.

"We made a special trip (to the Valley) a year ago to make sure we had the name," Windle said.

The Eloy group, the Council of Western Spirit or COWS, hopes to have its version of a state cowboy hall of fame open next year, according to Executive Director Martha Wilson.

"We're in the process of trying to get grants and we're doing some fundraisers," Wilson said. "We don't have a building yet, but we're working on it."

Wilson was surprised to learn that Payson claims to own rights to the name. She said the sole purpose of COWS is to establish a cowboy hall of fame and museum in Eloy.

The impetus for the Eloy initiative is an annual trail ride/cowboy poetry event held in that area, according to Wilson.

"The chamber of commerce has put it on for the last seven years, and we've gone from one cowboy poet to 20," she said. "It kind of grew out of realizing the need for a repository for cowboy poetry, and that remains our biggest goal. But we want to include all aspects of cowboy history in Arizona."

In an article published earlier this year in the Eloy newspaper, Wilson said, "The idea was to locate the cowboy museum in a small Arizona town that could take pride in promoting respect for the old cowboy ways and cultural heritage of the West. And through the interest the Eloy Chamber of Commerce showed in establishing an annual cowboy poetry gathering, it was evident we had a good place to start."

While other communities in Arizona have museums that highlight their local cowboy heritage, the proposed Payson facility was thought to be the only one that would feature the cowboy heritage of the entire state. Wilcox, for example, has the Rex Allen Museum, according to Jeanne Westphal, co-chairman of the committee.

"But it only features Rex Allen and other cowboys from southern Arizona," Westphal said.

Wilson believes there is plenty of room in Arizona for two cowboy halls of fame. She said ranching was very different in Pinal County where Eloy is located than it was in the high country.

"The climate was so different that it led to everything being different, the tack and everything," she said.

"Here, for example, we would especially be interested in the Hispanic origins of our cowboy heritage, in the vaqueros and what they contributed.

"We're not trying to step on anybody's toes," Wilson said. "This is the West and there is plenty of room for everybody. Maybe we can even work together on this. If we do, we will accomplish more."

Members of the Northern Gila County Historical Society are not so sure.

"We have a lot of backing for what we are doing here," said John Bittner, treasurer for both the historical society and the hall of fame committee.

Bittner said the Payson plan has the backing of former Arizona Governor Rose Mofford, and state historian Marshall Trimble.

"We have the World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo. We are in the center of the state. We will have representatives from every county helping us select the cowboys to be honored," Bittner said. "We have been, and will continue to be, in attendance at every cowboy-related event throughout Arizona. There is no better place than Payson for the cowboy hall of fame. What we're doing is for the entire state."

He said the committee is moving quickly to raise the necessary funds to open the hall of fame somewhere on Main Street.

"Through Dec. 31, we are selling charter memberships to individuals for $100 and to organizations and companies for $250," he said. "We're gaining more and more momentum every day."

Windle said it's not a matter of if, but when the Arizona Cowboy Hall of Fame and Museum opens in Payson.

"We are still working on buying the Oxbow Saloon," she said. "But if it doesn't happen there, we'll put it somewhere on Main Street. We'll get that bugger up."

Wilson said she understands why Payson is so eager to get there first.

"Lots of people come to Arizona to see the Wild West, and a cowboy hall of fame will be a major tourist attraction," she said.

Hall of Fame seeks funding

The Arizona Cowboy Hall of Fame Committee is seeking funding from foundations, tribes, corporations, organizations and individuals. Opportunities include: Individual Charter Membership $100; Business Charter Membership $250. Benefits of charter membership include a bi-monthly newsletter, brass membership card, and recognition on a special plaque at the hall of fame. (Charter memberships will only be accepted through Dec. 31, 2001.

Organization affiliation

The hall of fame committee will send a representative to speak to your organization. Benefits include a plaque of appreciation.

Sponsorships: Platinum Circle $50,000 and above; Gold Circle $30,000 and above; Silver Circle $10,000 and above

Sponsors will be represented in a special plaque in the foyer, and will be listed as sponsors in all publications produced through the Arizona Cowboy Hall of Fame and Museum Press.

Once the hall of fame is established, funding will come from admissions fees, gift shop revenues, memberships and sponsorships, grants from state and federal agencies for specific projects, fundraisers and other events.

For further information or assistance, call Sharesse Von Strauss at (928) 474-8392.

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