The Origins Of The World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo



Editor's note -- Last year, 2004, Jayne Peace Pyle and Jinx Pyle published a book that was 20 years late, "Rodeo 101 - History of the Payson, Arizona Rodeo 1884-1984." The two are now working on a book about Zane Grey to be published as a complement to the opening of the replica of the famous author's cabin at Green Valley Park. Because of this obligation we are visiting their book on the Payson Rodeo in this edition of the "Back Trackin'" column.

From the Authors -- this book is the history of the first 101 years of the Payson Rodeo -- 1884 through 1984. Plans were made to have it completed over two decades ago for Payson's Centennial Rodeo, but time and obligations prevented it from reaching fruition. Written and oral information has been collected since 1961. ... Writing this book has been an education for both of us. ... Due to Payson's remote location, her people had free rein to celebrate as they chose. For the first 70 years of her existence, Payson was always a wide-open, self-governing town, but during the three-day August Celebration, the cowboys gave a more potent meaning to "wide-open." During the Celebration, activities such as gambling, fist fighting, steer-busting, cock fighting, and the distilling, drinking and selling of White Mule thrived. .... Rivalry, betting, visiting, and dancing were the mainstay of the celebration. ...


When the rodeo was held on Payson's Main Street, the vehicles of the spectators created the arena in which cowboys and ranchers from around the Rim country could test their skills the talent of others.

Chapter 1

Payson was founded in a pine-fringed valley below the Mogollon Rim. The town site was laid out by James C. Callaghan, the local blacksmith, and John C. Hise, a local cattle rancher. The survey was completed in 1882 when the population was 42. Hise and Callaghan had no trouble making it official, as Hise was the Surveyor General of Arizona -- so appointed by President Grover Cleveland. Two years later, Payson, Ariz. began a train of annual rodeos that would stretch without interruption through two world wars and into all or part of three centuries.

Before Payson was established as a town site, it was called Green Valley. Bill St. John settled four miles south of Green Valley in 1878. When asked why he ran goats, he told Lewis Pyle, "Well, I used to have a little herd of milk cows and few head of range cows, but I could never keep them from drifting into Green Valley and those damn cowboys were always roping them, so I went to goats." St. John further told Lewis Pyle that cattle from all over the country just seemed to migrate into Green Valley and it was the primary hold up grounds (roundup camp) in the area, not only because of its central location to the local ranches, but also because "the water and grass in Green Valley just seemed to lure the cattle in."

A few of the ranchers in the Payson area by 1880 included Sam, Bill and Andrew Houston, John Meadows and sons, Henry Siddles, Bill Craig, John and Frank Hise (father and son), William Burch and Paul Vogel. Andrew Pyeatt and others in the Marysville settlement, west of Payson, had cattle and took part in the Green Valley roundups. Also, Joe Gibson, moved his cattle from Rye to Round Valley in 1878 and Rial Allen was running cattle on the East Verde River that same year.

The entire Tonto Basin let their cattle roam free, so the cattle belonging to each rancher mixed with those of his neighbors. Each year a general roundup was held with cowboys and ranchers driving the cattle to a common roundup camp where calves were branded with the owner's brand. Green Valley (later Payson) became the natural hub of activity for the local cowboys and ranchers.

It was just as natural for friendly competition and rivalries to develop among the ranchers and cowboys as to who was handiest with a rope, the most skilled bronc rider or had the fastest horse. In this manner, contests were born as an extension of the Green Valley cowboy lifestyle. Cowboys tested skills born of necessity against those of their neighbors'. Soon bets were laid down as to who was the best at a particular skill and the sport of rodeo was born, although it would not be known by that name for many years.

Thus, it could be reasonably argued that there were rodeos held in Payson before it existed as a town site! But, the 1884 Celebration is the one that launched the Payson Rodeo as an annual event.

There could have been other cowboy contests occurring on the range or even in other towns at this time. Evidence of the first cowboy contests were blown away long ago, like campfire smoke and trail dust. Other historians have made their claims as to when their town's rodeos started and became annual events. For the most part, we have no quarrel with what they say, or do not say about ours! For purposes of this book, we are writing about the history of the first 101 years of the Payson Rodeo.

The mountain town of Payson has often been omitted from articles pursuant to the origins of the sport of rodeo. This is not surprising because from its beginning in 1882, until after the completion of the Beeline Highway in 1958, Payson was one of the most remote settlements in the west, hidden from the world in the upper reaches of the Tonto Basin.

For purposes of clarification, the Tonto Basin is a watershed bordered by mighty physical barriers and drained primarily by Tonto Creek. It is bounded by the Mogollon Rim on the north, the Mazatzal Range on the west and the Sierra Anchas on the east. Before Roosevelt Dam was built, the southern border was located where Tonto Creek ran into the Salt River. Now it is an invisible line extending from the Salt River Canyon across what is today Roosevelt Lake and eastward to Chub Mountain in the southern Sierra Anchas.

Few outsiders knew what went on in the Tonto Basin and most locals liked it that way. Consequently, those who were writing the history of rodeo simply had no clue as to the annual ranch-born rodeo and celebration that began in the upper Tonto Basin settlement of Payson during the early 1880s.

The Tonto Basin ranchers, cowboys, and town folk held their celebration and invited their friends to town. Word of Payson's annual celebration was passed along by word of mouth. The cowboys and ranchers got the work and came down from the mountains and out of the Tonto valleys bringing their families for the annual event. By 1892, there were eighty-some men at the celebration, largely from the Rim country, the Tonto Basin, Pleasant Valley and Globe.

Even after automobiles were in common use, the trip to Phoenix and Flagstaff was long and hard and took a day or more, even if all went well. The quickest way to Payson from Phoenix was to take the Apache Trail to Roosevelt, cross Roosevelt Dam and continue northward up the Basin. Raymond Cline recalled a trip from Phoenix to Payson on the newly constructed Bush Highway in 1935 and it took 12 hours. So into the 1950s, Payson's Rodeo and the town itself was a well-kept secret.

Those who knew about Payson, knew her as the bootleg capitol of Arizona and a hellava rodeo town, but few outside the cowboy culture were aware of the small cow town. Most of those who attended the rodeo were friends and relatives of the local ranching families, but once they came to Payson for a rodeo, they always returned.

It wasn't until the Beeline Highway was paved in 1958 that the fame of the Payson Rodeo -- which had burned with flaming intensity for years in central Arizona -- began to shine its filtered light throughout the state. Still, Payson's Rodeo fame was roughly limited to Arizona. Its light never shown on the historians of other states, or if it did, they chose largely to ignore the little mountain town's contribution to rodeo history. So, they made their claims that rodeo had its beginnings in places like Montana, Texas, California, Wyoming, and Prescott, Ariz. Now that Payson's rodeo history is no secret, any serious discussion of the beginning of the sport of rodeo must include Payson, Arizona!

Mid-Town Pasture: The birth of modern rodeo

Organizers of the first Payson Rodeo were Abraham Henson Meadows, known later as "Arizona Charlie" Meadows (1860-1932), who moved to the Rim country with his parents from California in 1877, and young John Collins Chilson (1867-1924) who also moved to this area from California in 1879.

The word was passed along from ranch to ranch and on the third weekend in 1884, cowboys participated in the first Payson Rodeo. This first rodeo was held in Mid-Town Pasture, a little southwest of the intersection of Highway 87 and Old Main, now the site of the Sawmill Crossing. A few ranchers and cowboys gathered to see how their roping and riding abilities and the speed of their horses compared to those of their neighbors'. Horse racing, bronc riding, and the ranch-born roping events, along with a little silver dollar pitching, dominated the early agenda. Other events were soon added. Cock fights, greased pig contests, sack races and foot races became part of the celebration.

The cowboys also had what they called a "chicken pulling" contest. The fowl was buried in the street with only its head and neck sticking out. A rider would thunder by at a full gallop, lean down and jerk the unfortunate bird flopping from the dirt, then return to the starting point to await his time. Payson had an abundance of chickens at that time.

There were no chutes in those early days. The broncs were led or dragged to the middle of the street and eared down by a couple of cowboys. Someone cinched a rig onto the horse's back and a twister (bronc rider) stepped aboard. This was not a timed event until later years. The horse was ridden until his head came up -- or the rider was thrown. Twisters usually brought their own broncs to those first rodeos. They would ride the broncs of the other competitors, as well as their own, so that everyone got a fair shake.

During the street rodeos of the early 1920s, the bronc riders began testing their skills on the local white face and Durham cattle. There was no Brahma stock at the Payson Rodeos until 1950 when rodeo stock contractors began hauling them to Payson. Anything that could buck was fair game -- wild steers, cows, bulls, bareback horses. Some enterprising cowboys even tried pulling their saddles off horses and putting them on bulls. Screwing the saddle on the back of the bull sometimes furnished considerably more entertainment than the ensuing ride afterward. This practice did not last because the saddles would turn on the loose-skin bulls.

For more history of the Payson Rodeo, the book, "Rodeo 101" is available at Sue Malinski's Art and Antique Corral in Payson, (928) 472-4677, or from Lorraine Cline in Tonto Basin, (928) 479-2347.

Other books by Jayne Peace Pyle and Jinx Pyle: "Looking Through the Smoke," "Mountain Cowboys," "History of Gisela," "Blue Fox," "Muanami -- Sister of the Moon," and "Calf Fries and Cow Pies." The books can be purchased at Sue Malinski's Art and Antique Corral in Payson and from Lorraine Cline in Tonto Basin.

Rodeo Reunion

Git A Rope! Publishing is hosting the First Annual Payson Rodeo Reunion on Saturday August 20, at the Tonto Apache Gym from 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Everyone is welcome to come out and visit with the rodeo cowboys and cowgirls and get their Rodeo 101 books signed by them. Nancy and Lynn Sheppard will be the guests of honor. The event will feature live country-western music, door prizes, and good old-fashioned BBQ!

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