Come with me as we tramp through a foot of snow to the old dance hall. It is sometime during the 1930s, and we are about to share one of Payson’s great annual get-togethers, the community Christmas tree and dance.
The tradition began sometime before the turn of the century. Ernest Pieper, son of August and Wilhelmina, remembered the celebration taking place in his father’s dance hall and saloon. That was an adobe building he had purchased from Henry Sidels, but the annual event out-grew the facility. It was moved to the larger dance hall built by Guy Barkdoll. The Barkdoll hall was not only the site of Saturday night dances and the community Christmas tree, but also of funerals, weddings and school plays.
Theresa Boardman, beloved resident and mid-wife, remembered helping to fix the sacks of candy in 1912 for the celebration in Barkdoll’s Hall.
The large dance hall burned down one year from candles on the community tree, but Barkdoll quickly rebuilt. This time he outlawed candles on the tree, and instead began the tradition of making shiny ornaments out of tin foil.
Residents saved their candy wrappers all year to make the bobbles as well as the star for the top of the tree.
However, even eliminating candles did not save the dance hall and it burned down again in 1923. This time Barkdoll did not rebuild, and the community had to celebrate Christmas in other locations for several years.
In 1928 Bill Packard bought the Barkdoll property and built a new hall in which he installed a hardwood maple floor. This was great not only for dancing but for roller skating and basketball games. The latter were held there from 1930 to 1938, until the Julia Randall School was built with a gymnasium.
The Packard community center was extensive and included a bar and restaurant in an adjoining building.
After the Packards, various owners followed, including rancher Polly Brown, Frank Colcord, Walter Cluer, Howard Childers and the Greenleaf brothers. It was known by various names besides “The Dance Hall,” including “The Elk Bar,” “The Gay Nineties” and the “Winchester Saloon.” After it was retired as a saloon and dance hall it became an auction gallery and a feed store for a short time.
The historic building at the foot of the old Pine Road burned in October, 1997.
In many old-timer memories it will remain the place where Rim country folks came together each Christmas and shared a happy celebration around the community Christmas Tree.
Throughout the year the county road crew looked for the best tree to cut and bring in. It was often a large piñon pine, but sometime they had to settle for a cedar or cypress.
The tree was nailed to a stand and set up at the north end of the dance hall. After the Payson Womans Club was formed in 1922, the ladies took on the celebration as one of their projects.
Boardman’s mercantile store would order the candy, nuts and oranges. Citrus fruit was a special treat in the isolated mountain region. The women would sew bags of stiff crinoline to hold fruit and other goodies. The bags were two feet long and eight inches wide to accommodate the gifts.
Once filled they were stored in wash tubs and stashed behind the tree to await the great day. The local high school girls went from door-to-door asking for donations to cover the cost.
It was the custom for families to bring some of their gifts for each other or neighbors and place them under the tree during the days preceding the celebration.
Hand-carved toys and homemade clothing were the most common gifts. As time went on and prosperity picked up, the gifts included cameras, watches and jewelry.
Margaret Murphy tells of being sent by her mother through knee-deep snow to place a boxed gift upon the tree. Its recipient was a secret. Though it did not have a tag Margaret peeked and saw a doll. It was for her, so when she received it later from Santa, with the whole town looking on, she had to feign surprise.
In the 1930s everyone was poor for the Great Depression was in full swing. However, the children did not realize the dire circumstances.
“We enjoyed everything we had,” recalled Mary Vaughn
“We used the Sears or Monkey-Ward catalogs to dream by, and enjoyed life in general. One year at the community celebration I received a bar of Cashmere Bouquet soap, and how delighted I was! I had never smelled anything so nice. If you lived on a ranch in an all-male household you would know how I felt.”
The activities of the Womans Club made sure no one went home ungifted. Each person in the community received one of the bags of fruit, nuts and candy. Some years there were also gooey popcorn balls in wax paper.
(To be continued)