Historic Sawmill Whistle Blows Again

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It was more than a whistle.

It was a timepiece whose call set fond memories into Rim country hearts for more than four decades and now it calls again.

A small crowd gathered behind the Sawmill Theatre complex Saturday to witness the return of the original sawmill whistle to the property where it sounded between 1951 and 1993.

"I have never been so excited; this is something extra special for those of us who lived here for so long and relied on the mill for their livelihood," said long-time resident Anna Mae Deming, who originally suggested that the whistle be brought out of retirement. "The mill was our economy and 57 men lost their jobs when that whistle blew for the last time in 1993. It was the grandest thing there ever was to hear that whistle blow again."

The dream of returning the whistle spread fast after its current owner, Jimmy Connolly, found out his son had spread the idea to other children at Payson Elementary School. Students from PES engaged in a letter-writing campaign to convince Connolly, and Gordon Whiting, vice president of property management for Kaibab Industries, to reach an agreement so the whistle could once again sound from atop Sawmill Crossing.

The theater/shopping complex occupies 14 acres south of Main Street and west of the Beeline Highway, the site 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., the lunch hour starting at noon and ending at 1 p.m., and the end of the work day at 5 p.m.

Whiting said the plan is to have the whistle blow four times a day, at 7, noon, 1 p.m. and 5 p.m.

Connolly came into possession of the homemade whistle in 1995, when the sawmill was being torn down.

"I went down and asked for the whistle," Connolly said. "They just gave it to me."

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 remember living by that whistle, everybody did, even if you had a watch," Connolly said. "Especially the kids who lived here. The mothers would say, 'when you hear that whistle, you'd better be headin' for home.'"

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