Mercy me, the barbecue was going when we came here."
Theresa Boardman was reflecting on the year 1912 when she had just married Bill Boardman.
Talking about the event years later, she pointed from her home on Frontier in the general direction of Main Street and Bootleg Alley, saying, "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 built a garage on the southwest corner of the old Globe Road and Main Street, a building that remains and is being refurbished to its original look.
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, since the traditional Payson barbecue had begun almost as early as the town itself.
It was the summer of 1884, just after the naming of the new post office, that an annual celebration got under way in Payson.
The John Hise store and post office was the chosen site for the patriotic festival. Hise had surveyed the town site, and been a prime mover in getting a post office appointed to the new village.
His first store was approximately where the Harrison garage was later built, right on the main drag coming from the south.
The crowd that first year spilled out of the store and onto the street.
Someone read the Declaration of Independence, and Mr. Hise gave a stirring oration. The best part of the celebration, however, was a horse race down Main Street.
Pent-up frontier emotions spilled over after months of relative isolation on Rim country ranches, and cowboys pitted their best mounts against each other.
Eager bystanders made wagers and drew everybody into the action.
By the following year, the Rim country was filling up with cattle families from Texas and California. Globe's Silver Belt newspaper (June 13, 1885) gave an invitation, stating, "The people of all the surrounding camps and ranches will congregate (in Payson) on the Fourth."
This was the year a barbecue was added to horse racing, dancing and orations. As many as 75 people turned out for the festivities.
By 1886 the Hise family had left Payson for other enterprises, and the Creswell family had taken over the store. For a third time it became the scene of the Fourth of July celebration.
William Houston, of the Star Valley Houstons, donated an ox for the barbecue, and served as master of ceremonies at the program.
Col. Jesse Ellison's family had arrived at Apple Valley (Ellison Creek) the previous year, and his daughters recited patriotic poems.
Justice of the Peace Bill Burch made a speech that was declared to be "fine and fitting."
This was the year horse racing was given two full days because it had become so popular.
On July 3, the races were held at the Watkins' ranch near the mouth of Slate Creek in Tonto Basin. The Watkins family was noted for their fine line of horses.
Watkins had a store and post office at the mouth of Slate Creek, an area that later became Punkin Center.
The next day, on the fourth, the races were moved to Payson's Main Street.
It all went so well that a third horse race was scheduled for August 18, with matched horses put up by the Watkins brothers and Emer Chilson.
Actually, Chilson rode a horse named Desert belonging to the Houstons and he won the race. Wagers had totaled $1,200.
Sarah McDonald Lockwood recalled the barbecue as far back as 1905, when she was "a little bitty kid." It was still being held "right down by those big cottonwood trees," and attendance was just about 100. The Chilson and Tremaine ranch families gave the meat, and Howard Childress cooked it. They made salad in washtubs, and Ida Bell "Sis" Martin brought the beans.
"I've cooked many a pot of chili beans for a picnic," she said. "Oh, how they loved chili beans."
In fact, so many people loved the free 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, Phoenix and Mesa. They would camp for a few days at the campground later to become the site of the Julia Randall School.
In time, the influx of outsiders overwhelmed the good nature of Payson residents, and the final celebration was held in 1954.
"Babe" Lockwood said, "The last one that I remember going to, they barbecued four beeves, and there wasn't enough to go around."
The community barbecue had continued without interruption for 75 years, but its popularity brought about its demise.
After that, family gatherings took over the task of entertaining visitors on this very special holiday.