Just How Old Is The World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo?

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It's a mystery as old as the 118th World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo itself.

And that's the mystery: just how old is the 118th World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo?

But perhaps more important: is it older than Prescott's "Frontier Days Rodeo World's Oldest Rodeo"?

That loaded question has reared its head so often always at this time of year that even Rim country historian Stan Brown, who loves talking about the past, is sick to death of talking about it.

But this year, he has no choice.

In the June 29 issue of the Arizona Republic, under the banner headline "Prescott rodeo is oldest," 90-year-old Prescott resident Danny Freeman boasted that he has "finally proven to everyone's satisfaction" that his town's 114-year-old rodeo is older than Payson's trademark event.

He further said that neither Payson nor Pecos, Texas (which claims to be approaching its 118th "world's oldest" rodeo) couldn't prove their contests are older.

"All they're going on is what grandpa said," Freeman said.

Freeman claimed to possess a 1929 Frontier Days program, a 1934 Arizona Highways magazine, and a 1938 Saturday Evening Post which state that the world's first paid-admission rodeo took place in Prescott July 4, 1888.

Freeman also said his town has presented a continual, uninterrupted string of annual rodeos since that date 114 years ago.

Them's fightin' words in Arizona Rim Country.

Whether Payson's premiere audience-grabber was actually initiated in 1884 four years earlier than Prescott's is a debate that's been going for years, of course, and it is most often fueled by rah-rah residents of Prescott, who have always claimed to own the "World's Oldest Rodeo" title 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 and paid admissions," Brown said. "Furthermore, despite what Mr. Freeman told the Republic, it is my understanding that Prescott broke its series during World War II, in 1944 and 1945, when the cowboys all went to war and there was no stock available. But the rodeo continued here, by the seat of its pants, through those years."

Brown admits that "we're all talking hearsay, here" in regards to the lack of documentation that could prove Prescott's rodeo run was indeed interrupted.

Payson's Pat Randall can't prove that point, either. But she does possess another sort of documentation that proves that Payson's "The World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo" began in 1893, five years after Prescott's.

Randall's evidence is an official program from "Payson's Great Annual Home Coming & World Famed 38th Annual Rodeo," held in 1931. That would make the upcoming edition of the rodeo the 109th, not the 118th.

"You better believe I think that program is accurate," Randall said. Her 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 says it in three places. So I don't think it's an error."

"That's the only publication in existence that suggests the rodeo was started later than 1884," Brown said. "And that (1931 program) came out of Gila County; it didn't come locally ... I wouldn't trust anything I read in that thing."

More reliable, Brown thinks, are 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 ..."

"Now how could they have been writing about the Payson Rodeo in 1886 if it didn't start until 1893?" Brown asked.

There is, too, the 1989 book "Arizona Charlie," written by Jean Beach King about her great uncle, the legendary Rim country cowboy Charlie Meadows.

King has died since the book's publication. But in the prologue, she reports that her research was culled from Meadows' "diaries, newspaper headlines and articles, and treasured scrapbooks," as well as interviews conducted shortly before his death by Arizona State Historian Effie Keen and Zane Grey.

In chapter four, King wrote:

"... Charlie entered his first Wild West roping contest in August of 1884. He competed against another settler and fellow 'Hassayamper,' John Chilson, in Payson's mid-town cow pasture ... This contest set a precedent one that has been carried out each August since 1884 ..."

After discussing the disputes between the towns of Payson, Prescott and Denver over claims to the title of "World's Oldest Rodeo," King adds that the fair owner of the title "will probably remain unknown, but Charlie's 1884 Payson rodeo is considered by many to have been the first genuine Wild West rodeo ever held."

Not unexpectedly, Randall calls King's book "a work of fiction," and Brown calls it "extremely well documented."

Based on the Roundup's research, historical accounts of the rodeo didn't become common until the late 1970s, by which time all documentation seemed to pretty much spring from a single, unidentified source. Besides Randall's, no other program from the 1930s or from the four decades which followed surfaced last year when the Roundup published a series of requests for rodeo memorabilia in hopes of shedding new light on the mystery.

The best that the area's longest long-timers have been able to do is guess as to which starting date is correct.

Anna Mae Deming, the Rim country's legendary weatherwoman and co-author of the book, "An Illustrated History of the Rim Country, has this to say on the topic: "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 ...

"We've got to be ahead of Prescott, no matter what happens," Deming said. "Go for the longest time. I think 1884 is a good date. I think that when you start disputing, it just creates hard feelings."

Jayne Peace, a lifelong Rim country resident, is now writing a book on the history of the Payson Rodeo, titled "Payson Rodeo: 1884 to 1984," to be published in December.

"My family has been here since 1889, and my whole life they've told me the Payson rodeo is four years older than the Prescott rodeo," Peace said. "I just have to go by what my grandfather told me. There's a core of old families here, and they'll all tell you it started in 1884. I just have to believe those people."

Bill Armstrong, the longtime 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."

Ninety-two-year-old author and local icon Marguerite Noble didn't mind discussing the subject. There's only one problem, she admitted: "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."

As far as Brown is concerned, he has figured out the Payson-Prescott debate, at the very least.

"I think we have to admit that Prescott is basing their claim that their rodeo started when they started charging admission and giving out professional prizes," Brown said. "That is true. They started that before we did. It was after that that our rodeo went professional. Up to that point, it was just, 'Y'all come,' and they'd pass the hat for prizes.

"But my primary comment is, 'Who cares?' Everybody has their own tag-line for publicity purposes. We say 'The Oldest Continuous Rodeo.' Prescott has 'The 'World's Oldest Rodeo.' Fine. Let's go with it. Who cares?"

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