The World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo has changed a lot in its 122 years. The family of Gila County District 1 Supervisor Tommie Cline Martin has witnessed most of those changes.
Martin was the Payson Rodeo Queen in 1968; her mother, Pat Cline was born in the Rim County in 1926; Cline's mother, Sarah Mae Holder Haught was born on the East Verde in 1900. Haught's parents came to the area in 1896, as did her husband, Walter Haught's family.
So, the family has been around the rodeo since it was only a dozen years old. Martin and Cline have plenty of rodeo stories to tell -- their own and those of their families.
"The rodeo was on Bill and Ola Wilbanks' property," Cline says of her earliest memories of the rodeo. "The grandstand was where Wilma Smith's house is and the arena was just below it (just east of Rodeo Drive and south of the Payson Country Club)."
She said contestants would come from around the state and most of them were related.
"The ones that came from Prescott didn't like to admit where they were from though," she said, with a twinkle in her eye about the longtime feud between Payson and Prescott over which has the oldest rodeo.
Among the family names she recalls are the Armers, Barkdolls, the Chilsons, the Clines from Tonto Basin.
The livestock was supplied by the Vaughns of Star Valley and Chilsons, Cline said. "It wasn't shipped in."
And the Payson rodeo was never called "The August Doin's" in the old days. "In my whole life it was never called that," Cline said. "It was either the August Celebration or The Rodeo. ‘Doin's' were just whatever was going on."
Cline remembers some outstanding cowboys and some rough and tumble times too.
"Freddy Chilson was a fine roper in the 30s and Joe Bassett was a wonderful athlete," she said -- and a scuffler. "Joe Bassett and Wayne Ewing had a horse race and Wayne got just ahead of Bassett and started waving his bat (the little whip used on racehorses) right in front of Bassett's horse," Cline said. "Joe's horse wouldn't go around that bat and Wayne won. But Joe jumped off his horse and tackled Wayne and gave him one heck of whipping. Everybody was cheering for Joe."
Another scuffle Cline recalls was between Tommy Parrish and Doc Cline. Cline's husband, Raymond, related the story to Jayne Peace Pyle and Jinx Pyle for their book "Rodeo 101 History of the Payson, Arizona Rodeo 1884-1984":
"In 1946, Tom Parrish teamed up with local cowboys, Wayne Colcord and Doc Cline for the wild horse race event. Doc (son of George Cline) and Tom ‘eared down' the horse. The act consisted of each cowboy grabbing the horse by the ears, twisting and pulling down until they could get a good bite (literally) on the horse's ears and hold him. This stilled the horse so that Wayne could bridle, saddle and mount him.
"During this activity, the horse suddenly dropped his head causing the two muggers to clash heads. Each man thought that he had been hit by the other and fight was on, as Wayne rode away in hopes of glory.
"The attention of the crowd, however, had shifted to the fight. Bets were being laid as spectators pulled forth wads of bills. ...
"The rodeo commentator was quick ... and began ... a blow-by-blow account ... ‘Doc slips a wild right from Tommy and counters with hooks to the midsection ... Parrish gives ground and counters with a straight left ..."
According to account in "Rodeo 101" they fought to a standstill, both too tired to continue.
During the old days of the rodeo, everyone in town worked to make the event a success, they all had something special they did for the four-day festivities in order to earn extra money to see them through the winter.
Cline's grandmother, Sarah Holder Shepherd, lived on Bootleg Alley and would spend every winter making a silk crazy quilt with fancy embroidery stitching to raffle during the rodeo.
"I'd go up and down Main Street selling raffle tickets for it," Cline said. "She'd only sell 100 tickets for a dollar each and they'd all sell because people knew about her quilts. $100 was a lot of money then."
Some of Cline's fondest rodeo memories are of the family reunion atmosphere and the dances. "Everybody would come and set up camp," she said. "They'd camp all along Main Street and bummed baths."
There were only a couple of places where there were bathtubs in town in the 1930s, she said. One was the barbershop and the other was her Grandma Shepherd's.
"Grandpa Shepherd was a big man. He couldn't fit in a regular size washtub, so he bought a bathtub and set it up on the back porch. It wasn't hooked up to anything. They'd have to get water from the well, heat it up, put it in the tub and cool it down before they could take a bath, but a lot of people took a bath in that tub during The Rodeo."
There was a dance every night during the old rodeo, Cline said.
"They were as important as the rodeo, and God, it was romantic too," she said. "You were all excited about who you were going to dance with the most. And that one wasn't necessarily the one you'd dance with the next night." They danced to Big Band music until the 1950s, she said.
And parents never knew who was going to be in the house the next morning.
"I'd bring a whole bunch home. No drunks, just folks that didn't have a place to stay," she said. Most everyone did the same.
The rodeo dances were most often held at the Old Elks, which was known as the Winchester when it burned down several years ago. It was located next to where the Oxbow is and was the site for roller skating, basketball games and funerals, as well as dances and the community Christmas party.
"It had this monster elk head over the bar, wearing glasses and had a cigarette hanging out its mouth. Sometimes Howard Childers and them would make it smoke. I don't know how they did that."
Cline said on occasion someone would ride a horse into the place and claim it was thirsty.
Payson was wired for homemade electricity in the 1940s. Grady Harrison had a generator and it provided the electricity.
"During rodeo you couldn't iron or have lights because all the power was needed to light up the Old Elks," Cline said.
Everyone danced -- preteens, young adults, parents and grandparents.
"It was always crowded," Cline said. "You'd come in the door and start dancing to right and everyone moved in the same direction. You could see all the heads bobbing up and down, keeping time to the music."
There was gambling too, all kinds, from dice and cards to roulette. It would be in spots all up and down Main Street, in the backs of pickups and sometimes under a big tent.
"Almost every year someone would cut the tent ropes and grab the money and run," Cline said.
The gambling was part of The Rodeo up until the late 1940s when "Gila County shut it down," Cline said.
Drinking was part of it too, with the bars often selling homemade beer, wine and whiskey.
"Vernon and I'd scrounge for unbroken bottles and good corks and sell them to A.J. Franklin," Cline said, recalling the enterprising activities she and her brother shared as children. Franklin ran "The Dive" bar where Bootleg Alley joins Main Street.
"Bootleg Alley was a busy, busy place in those days," Cline said. She has firsthand knowledge of that fact.
Her mother, Sarah Mae Holder Haught, in an autobiography she wrote for the Northern Gila County Historical Society's "Rim Country History Illustrated" in 1984, talked about the liquor business during the Depression years.
"In those days everyone in this end of the country made their own whiskey, and they didn't let a little thing like Prohibition deter them. ... Walter was no different from anyone else. He made good whiskey and had a market for all he made. People as far away as Los Angeles ... knew about ‘Payson Dew' ... But like the most of the rest of the whiskey makers, the law caught up with him.
"Bootlegging wasn't all bad. It kept the grocery store in enough money so that every month they were able to give credit to everyone else who didn't have a cent and no way to earn money. There were a lot of people in that shape, and credit at the store was all that kept them easing.
"While Walter was making whiskey, I was making grape wine. It was good wine and I traded it for lots of things. I remember trading Mr. Charles Yunker a gallon of wine for a sack of apples, and I could always trade wine for Levi's or haircuts or the doctor bill or a sack of bran for the milk cow ..."
During the rodeo, if the cowboys had too much to drink they were rounded up and tossed in the little jail on McLane, Cline said.
"One time, they had a bunch in there and they'd sobered up. When they brought the next bunch, that first group took off running and grabbed the big book that had all the names of the people that had been thrown in jail. They ran off and hid all over the place," she said. Later, while she and her husband, Raymond, were on horseback along the East Verde River, working the town allotment they ranched, they spotted something that looked odd. They retrieved it -- it was the big book from the jail. Cline said she wanted to keep it, it had 50 years of names of people who'd been put in the jail, but her husband insisted they return it to the judge.
Watching the few drunks that were in the street in the late 1950s and 1960s was entertainment for Martin and her contemporaries.
"We'd go up and down from the Pioneer to the Old Elks and then sit on Dallas' porch and watch the drunks perform," Martin said. -- Dallas was Dallas Wilbanks and the porch was at the Lone Pine Hotel.
Martin's reign as Rodeo Queen in 1968 was near the end of the old rodeo.
"When they started improving the road (Beeline Highway) in the 50s is when it started changing," Martin said.
Up until the 60s the rodeo was not all that much different from when it started in 1884.
"As the road improved the crowd changed," Martin said. "It went from being all family and friends to strangers. As the character of the rodeo changed it didn't feel safe anymore. They (the outsiders) thought they could come to Payson and do whatever they wanted to."
Before the change parents would let their children roam free, knowing everyone would be looking out for them.
"Kids behaved themselves," Cline said. "They didn't try to drink, everyone knew who they were and how old they were. If they picked up someone's glass it was knocked out of their hand."
With more people from out of the area coming in, the rodeo became one big drunk, Martin said. There was every kind of drug you could imagine and so many beer cans tossed on Main Street you could hardly walk.
The rodeo changed too -- there were professional cowboys and wannabes, Cline said.
Martin said it had been for the joy of competition and bragging rights. "It wasn't a sport. They didn't train for it, it was an extension of the work. It was fun."
"That's when the old cowboys stopped coming," she said. And in the 70s almost everyone in town would stay home.
In the 1980s the Clines tried to revive some of the old rodeo reunion feeling by hosting Arizona Cattlegrowers parties at their ranch in Star Valley. Now Jayne Peace-Pyle and Jinx Pyle, along the Tonto Apache Tribe and others are bringing the reunion atmosphere back again. Last year the first Rodeo Reunion was held at the Tonto Apache Recreation Center, and this year it will be held again at the facility from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, Aug. 19.
And while the rodeo is still fun and the reunion brings back some the old-fashioned flavor, it can't ever be the same.
"The rodeo was fun. Everybody looked forward to it. It was better than Christmas," Cline said.