Hometown Rodeo Legends Gather For Reunion

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Rodeo legends and fans from several of the Western states will gather in Payson for the first Payson Rodeo Reunion, sponsored by Git A Rope Publishing.

The Rodeo Reunion will be held at the gym on the Tonto Apache Reservation from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Saturday, Aug. 20. Special guests will be Lynn and Nancy Sheppard.

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Lynn Sheppard ate his share of rodeo arena dust as steer wrestler in his younger days. Later he served Gila County residents in a variety of ways.

All are welcome to attend this event, which will take us back to a time when the August rodeo was far less formal and was, in truth, a reunion of ranchers, cowboys, rodeo-goers, and just plain folks, attending a get-together of friends.

The idea of the Payson Rodeo Reunion was spawned a year ago at the first book signing of the Rodeo 101 book held at Sue Malinski's Western Village in Payson. Cowboys, cowgirls and rodeo personalities showed up to get their rodeo books and visit with old friends. Our special guest for the day was Tammy Kelly, six-time woman's world champion bull rider. Also, Miss Rodeo Arizona showed up. She didn't know us, but she looked beautiful and was friendly. She fit right in, very regal. As the day wore on, we realized the book signing had turned into a reunion. Sue Malinski's store was packed tight with people who didn't want to leave. They wanted to see each other's pictures, sign each other's pictures, and talk of days gone by.

Some of the conversations went like this:

"Remember the time that bull tried to climb out of the chute with Sambo on board?"

"Yeah, and remember when Duke, Harry and Gary set Warren down on that Blue Bell Wrangler bull?"

"Payson had the fastest horses, the toughest cowboys, and the best lookin' women."

"Do you all know that Harry Shill parachuted into the Payson Arena in 1991, then rode a bull? He's no spring chicken!"

"Yeah, that's Machine-Gun Kelly."

"Is that really Billy Baker? I thought he died."

Sue Malinski was very accommodating. She knew that something more that just a book signing was taking place-she could feel it. We had seen nothing like this since the Tonto Cowbelles held their last get-together in 2000.

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Nancy Sheppard was trick-riding in New York's Madison Square Garden at the age of 17. She is the only woman ever to stand on a running horse while spinning two ropes and she did it with ease.

The Cowbelles' annual dinner and dance, plus the Cowboy Christmas Ball, sponsored by the Daughters of the Gila County Pioneers, had somewhat filled the social needs of the old ranching families, but without them, a part of our culture was being lost.

We saw the need for some kind of reunion to bring these families together again and the book signing gave us the idea. Let's have a rodeo reunion and invite the old families, but why stop there? Let's invite everyone and give them a taste of what Payson was like 30 even 60 years ago, before they paved the road to Phoenix. Let's bring the cowboys back and let's bring back a little Payson hospitality to the Payson Rodeo!

So, we planned and planned and soon friends joined us. What would we do without Lorraine Cline, Lecki Ski, Pat Cline, Jack Warter, Gene Warter, Jayne Hatch, Terry Wilbanks, Duke Wilbanks, Shawn Haught, Rockin' Ron Gibson, and others who have donated their time and talents to make the reunion a success? We urge you all to come. Meet and mingle with the cowboys and rodeo hands. You will find them friendly and happy to sign your rodeo books and T-shirts.

We, at Git A Rope Publishing, have nothing against the rodeo as it is today, but we recall the old days when the Payson Rodeo was like a big family reunion and anyone who could afford the entry fee could be a contestant in the wild cow milking, the wild horse race, calf roping, or bull riding. Times have changed.

To those who have said that we are competing with the rodeo, we answer, "Our intention is to add to the Payson Rodeo celebration. We are bringing people to town who haven't been to a Payson Rodeo for years. Some will come from Texas, New Mexico, Colorado and California. They will stay in Payson motels, eat at Payson restaurants, gas up at Payson stations, pay Payson sales taxes and leave the town richer in money and culture."

Also, many of the ones who come to Payson for the reunion will go to the Saturday night or Sunday performance of the rodeo.

We miss the days when "just folks" could visit the cowboys behind the bucking chutes. We miss the matched horse races, the cowhide race, the turkey shoot, the chicken pulling, and all the other events, many which were born in Payson. What happened to the gambling tent? Or the cowboys sitting in the shade placing bets on every roper and rider? Things have changed.

The old days are gone, blown away with the dust of the old arenas and the Main Street Rodeos. They have faded into Payson and Tonto Basin history, but their stories live on. Many are recorded in the book, "Rodeo 101-History of the Payson, Arizona, Rodeo." But, many of the stories rest unwritten, untold, under the sweat-stained Stetsons of the old cowboys. They remember and we have put out the word. There is going to be a Payson Rodeo Reunion!

Leroy Tucker won the bulldogging in Payson in 1957. The winning of that event gave him enough points to be named the Arizona Rodeo Association All-Around Cowboy that year. Leroy plans to be here and has promised to tell some stories on E. C. Conway, as well as to sign books, as will Dave Erikson whose picture graces the front of the Rodeo 101 book.

And so, the old cowboys are coming! Some will continue to come year after year, God willing. But for some, it will be their first and last Payson Rodeo Reunion. Get your books signed by every old cowboy you see. Some will not be here next year.

Fred Chilson passed on a couple of months ago. He and his father, Charlie Chilson, roped in the Payson Rodeo for many years. His grandfather, John Collins Chilson, was a co-founder of the Payson Rodeo along with Arizona Charlie Meadows back in 1884. What would a hardcover limited edition Rodeo 101 book signed by Fred be worth today? What will a book signed by Dave Erikson be worth in a few years?

Our special guests of honor for this year will be Lynn and Nancy Sheppard of Globe. Both have been inducted into the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. Lynn's brother, Chuck Sheppard, who died about a month ago, was also in the National Cowboy Hall of Fame. We didn't get his autograph. We were planning to get it at this Rodeo Reunion.

Nancy is also in the National Cowgirl Hall of Fame. She, like many Gila County rodeo personalities, is descended from Texas pioneer ranchers. Her father, Cleve Kelley -- a Texas cowboy and rodeo roper-was a signer of the 1936 Boston Rodeo Document and a member of the original Cowboys Turtle Association. Her mother, Margaret Catherine Adams, was the daughter of a prominent Texas horse and mule dealer.

At the age of 9, Nancy was hired by Harry Rowell to perform at the Hayward, Calif., rodeo as a trick roper and rider. Nancy never looked back and by age 11, she had performed at the Pendleton Roundup. At 17, she was trick riding in New York's Madison Square Garden. She is the only woman ever to stand on a running horse while spinning two ropes and Nancy did it with ease.

A few Payson old-timers will remember 18-year-old Nancy Sheppard's performance at the 1948 Payson Rodeo. Nancy's expertise on a horse, her skill with a rope, and her ability to captivate an audience -- during a career that lasted more than two decades -- earned her a gold card membership in the Pro Rodeo Cowboys Association.

Nancy has always taken time to visit and entertain in hospitals around the country. She has been deeply moved by children and makes it a point to see them whenever her touring schedule allows.

Over the years, she has not only roped and rode her way into the hearts of rodeo fans all over the West, but Nancy Sheppard has been a worldwide ambassador for her sport and has introduced countless fans to the sport of rodeo.

In 1948, Nancy married Lynn Sheppard, a noted Gila County rodeo cowboy and rancher. They have one son, Lex, who won the bull-riding event at the Payson Rodeo in 1977.

So come and meet Lynn and Nancy Sheppard. They are good, friendly, ranch people who love Payson and its rodeo. Their son, Lex, will be on deck to speak about his famous parents.

Ya'll come and get your Rodeo 101 books signed!

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