New Owners Breathe Life Into Historic Ox Bow Saloon

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The new owner of the Ox Bow Inn complex is hardly your typical old-west saloon operator.

For one thing, Beverly Nethken who just bought the historic Main Street building with her husband, Roy has never owned a bar or any other business involving alcoholic beverages.

"In fact," Nethken said, "I'm not a person who goes to bars. I don't drink, I don't smoke. And I'm hoping my moral standards will keep the atmosphere tame.

"I've heard nightmares about this building's past, and I don't want to be part of that nightmare. I want to run this establishment as if it was my house."

To that end, Nethken plans to prominently post what she call's the Ox Bow's new "mission statement" before the saloon's anticipated July 25 opening:

"Only one law here at the Ox Bow; We welcome all, except the ones who like to brawl; For fussin' and cussin' kaint be mixed; if you cuss and fuss, you're 86'd."

"I will not allow anyone to cuss before me," Nethken said. "Not my staff, not my customers. I'm not in this for the money. I'm in this to create a nice place for people to go to. We're not going to be open on Sundays, because I think people should go to church on Sundays."

Although Nethken's top priorities are to make the Ox Bow "fun and safe," she doesn't hesitate to add, "But I'm going to be strict. I'm going to have a dress code after 7 p.m., so no one comes in with T-shirts with holes or profanities printed on them. If you're going to come into my house, you're not coming in with hardly any clothes on, to argue with people, or with profanities on your shirt."

Those who qualify for entry will discover a freshly restored Ox Bow Saloon that will "very closely resemble the way she used to be, way back in the 1950s, when we were all like 'Leave it to Beaver,'" Nethken said. "We want to have a family atmosphere not in the bar, of course, but everywhere else in the building."

Nethken and her husband have two plans for the Ox Bow, she said. Plan A is to open the saloon. And Plan B is "every other possibility beyond opening the saloon.

"We're hoping to have a restaurant. Sooner or later we'd love to open up the courtyard for live outdoor theater, and offer dinner theater inside, maybe simultaneously. We want some artisan shops in the back, for leather or glass artists, maybe."

"Eventually, we want to open up the old Winchester room upstairs, but that needs an elevator before we can let the public up there," she said. "All those things are part of our ultimate goal. We really want a multi-function facility here. "

For now, however, the Nethkens are concentrating on the saloon, which will feature four television sets "for sports, Karaoke, and special programs like the Country Music Awards show." Nethken said. "And one of our signature features will be the bottomless barrel of peanuts; you can just throw your peanut shells on the floor."

The Nethkens also plan to offer a Karaoke night, a ladies-night dance-class, a sock hop "for the more mature crowds," and live country music on weekend nights.

The story of an icon

The Ox Bow Inn started out as The Payson Hotel, which was built in 1932 by William and Estelee Wade and offered nine rooms ($2.50 per night) and a kitchen (dinners were 50 cents). At the end of World War II, the Wades retired and new owners Bob and Thelma Caldwell expanded the facility to become the Ox Bow Inn named for Oxbow Hill, the gateway to Payson. The Caldwells purchased Alf Randall's store to the west and remodeled it as the Ox Bow Saloon. A series of rooms were added to form a courtyard in the back, which opened onto a patio and swimming pool.

A gala grand opening for the Ox Bow Lodge was held May 2, 1954, with a free poolside barbecue.

The Caldwells sold the property in August 1966, after which it had a series of owners. The most recent was Valley bar owner Craig W. Norman, who reopened the saloon in June 2000 only to see it shut down just a few months later after visiting state liquor control agents happened to witness a bar brawl, as well as a number of alcohol and health violations. Both the Payson Town Council and the State Liquor Board opted to reject Norman's application for a liquor license, and the Ox Bow was yet again out of business.

Last March, the Ox Bow was declared eligible for the National Register of Historic Places, the nation's official list of properties considered worthy of preservation. If accepted, the building will join such notable state structures as the San Javier del Bac mission near Tucson and the Goodfellow Lodge at Tonto Natural Bridge, the only area building on the list.

"I would love it if the people of Payson would give me their ideas of what they would like to see here. What would draw them to come here? They can send their ideas to 607 W. Main St., Payson, 85541."

When it opens, the hours of operation for the Ox Bow Saloon will be 2 p.m. to 11 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays, and 12 p.m. to 1 a.m. Fridays and Saturdays. For more information, call 468-9797.

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