The Fourth of July was celebrated by Payson's early settlers without the help of pyrotechnics. Perhaps that was because so many of them or their fathers had fought in the Civil War. They had enough "bombs bursting in air."
Or perhaps it was simply the absence of roads into the Rim country that made the import of fireworks impractical. But the celebration was energetic and patriotic never the less. The main features of the community affair were orations, horse racing, a dance and a free barbecue.
The summer of 1884 brought a special sense of jubilation and patriotism to the frontier town of Payson. Four months earlier, the town had been given a name and a full-fledged post office that opened in John Hise's store at the corner of Main and Globe Road (McLane). It was natural that the store became the site of Payson's first patriotic rally, and who but John Hise himself should deliver the address.
After all he, along with blacksmith Callaghan, had surveyed the town and then lobbied a friend in Washington to establish a post office. Someone read the Declaration of Independence, everyone adjourned to attend the horse races up and down Main Street, and that evening there was a "grand arbor dance." It would start off with a grand march, then a quadrille, and after that a waltz. A reporter in attendance from Globe's Silver Belt called that kind of dancing "hugging set to music." It must have been greatly enjoyed because the ranchers, merchants and cowboys danced until morning.
There was a midnight meal to give them strength to carry on, and that innovation became a regular feature of holiday dances in Payson. It is reported that the late night meal became quite sumptuous, "replete with many varieties of wine, chicken pies, scalloped oysters and hand-cranked ice cream."
The facet of the annual celebration that burned its way into the memories of most old-timers was the big barbecue. Theresa Haley reflected on the year 1912, when she had just married Bill Boardman.
"Mercy me, the barbecue was going when we came here." Years later, she was interviewed by school superintendent Ira Murphy, and pointing in the general direction of the Globe road she said, "We had the Fourth of July barbecue down there, under the trees on the street right where Grady's garage is now." Grady Harrison had since built a garage on the southwest corner of McLane and Main. These days it is being refurbished to its original design by Ron Doss.
Theresa continued, "The Fourth of July picnic was held in the beautiful shade under those great big cottonwoods. People could come from anywhere and be fed. They came all the way from Flagstaff. I don't think we ever had less than 200."
Actually Mrs. Boardman was a latecomer. The Payson barbecue had begun almost as early as the town itself, beginning in 1885. By that time many cattle ranchers were arriving in the area. They included Ellison, Haught, Gibson, Houston, Fuller, Randall, St. John, Chilson and Burger. William Houston, brother of the Star Valley Houstons and later to be teacher in the Payson school, donated an ox and served as master of ceremonies at the program. Col. Jesse Ellison's daughters from the Apple Valley Ranch recited patriotic poems, and Judge Bull Burch made a speech that was declared to be "fine and fitting."
The late Sarah McDonald "Babe" Lockwood recalled the barbecue as far back as 1905 when she was "a little bitty kid." It was held "right down by those big cottonwood trees," and at that early date, attendance was around 100. The meat was donated by the Chilson ranches, and Howard Childress cooked it. Local residents made salad in washtubs and Ida Belle "Sis" Martin brought the beans. "I've cooked many a pot of chili beans for the picnic," she recalled. "Oh how they loved chili beans."
The fact is so many people loved the entire meal it became increasingly difficult to keep up with the cost. Those in charge insisted the meal must remain free, but the growing crowd included folks from Flagstaff and Phoenix. They would camp for days at a time near the Julia Randall School, and at last the influx of outsiders overwhelmed the good nature of Paysonites.
Babe Lockwood said, "The last one that I remember going to, they barbecued four beeves and there wasn't enough to go around." That was the final free meal, held in 1954. The custom had continued for 75 years.
Sarah McDonald Lockwood lamented the demise of Payson's community Fourth celebrations. She said, "I tried to get them to have a kind of a pioneer day, for just the people that were, you know, here in the early days." Such a dream did not materialize, but the good old days of barbecues and horse races on Main Street lingered in the memories of many.
In the meantime, family gatherings took over the task of entertaining visitors and new ways to celebrate were added, like fishing in Green Valley Lakes, taking guests to Payson's several museums, and watching the pyrotechnics over the lake in years when the fire danger was not such a threat.