At 89 (turning 90 in November), E.C. Conway is stooped and frail. His hearing is going and one eye is clouded over, still he can share a tale or two about the old Payson Rodeo.
As a young, wiry cowboy from a pioneer ranching family, Conway made his mark in more than a few events at the Payson Rodeo during the 1930s and 1940s. He roped calves, team roped and even boxed and milked wild cows. His partner -- and sometimes competition -- in the contests was his brother Clarence.
"I was about 15 or 16 when I started (participating in the rodeo)," he said in an interview at Rim Country Health and Retirement Community, with his son, Bill by his side.
Payson's wasn't the only rodeo in which the teen competed.
"We went all over the state this time of year," he said.
He and his family made the trip to the rodeo every summer even before he started competing.
Over the years, he had many team roping partners, in addition to his brother Clarence, some he still recalls are Buck Nichols, with whom he won the Payson Rodeo, Frank Cline and John Cline.
"We just used ranch horses," he said of the mounts they rode in team roping. Modesty and an aging memory prevented Conway from saying how many contests he won over the years, except to say, " I won a few."
But the fact that he frequently won his events in Williams makes that rodeo his favorite out of all them.
There wasn't much money to be won in the old days, but one especially good year Conway won between $800 and $900. It was money that helped families get through the winter, just as anything Payson residents could do during rodeo earned them a little extra cash for the coming months, according to Pat Cline, who grew up in Payson in the late 1920s and 1930s. Cline's memories of the old rodeo were featured in last year's edition of this special Payson Rodeo publication.
Conway did not always compete in the Payson Rodeo, he participated in about 20 of them, he said, but he and his family always made the trip from their ranch in Greenback Valley in the Sierra Anchas. They even came the year the monsoon rains had Tonto Creek running so high, they had to come in the long way, first going east to go north and then to come west and south to Payson.
In the old days, with only a handful of rooms to rent, people coming to the Payson Rodeo would stay with family or friends or camp out. The Conways rented a little cabin at a place just off South McLane every summer.
Conway was among the rodeo contestants who also took part in the boxing that was introduced to the list of events in the 1930s. It was one of the things unique to Payson -- none of the other rodeos in which Conway participated had boxing.
In their book "Rodeo 101," Jinx Pyle and Jayne Peace Pyle, published by Git A Rope! Publishing, Inc., wrote about the boxing and visited with Conway about it.
"As the celebration picked up steam, bull dogging entered the picture and because the August Celebration was geared for everyone, more novelty events found their way onto the program: cowhide races, wild cow milkings, wild horse races, even boxing became popular.
"In the 1930s, a boxing ring was set up along Payson's Main Street during the celebration. Anyone who cared to test his skill with the gloves against an opponent was welcome to climb into the ring. Bets were placed on the boxers and the fight was on! The spirit and rules of boxing were admired, and dirty fighting was not tolerated in the ring. This spirit carried over into fights that broke out along Main Street. The quickest way to lose the respect of an old Payson cowboy was to kick an opponent when he was down.
"E.C. Conway and his brother, Clarence's dad, Ed, had built a boxing ring for the boys at Greenback, so they could hone their boxing skills for Payson Rodeo. When E.C. was about 16, he was on his way from the lower Tonto Basin up to the August Doin's. He carried his boxing gloves with him. Jim Hudson, a world champion roper in 1941, was traveling to the Payson Rodeo when he saw E.C. and gave him a ride.
"E.C. recalled boxing at Payson's 1932 rodeo. When asked who he fought, he replied, ‘I don't remember his name. It was one of those CCC boys. I whipped him, but the best fight that year was when Walter Trezise whipped Port Hinton. Port had a reputation as a fighter and he thought nobody could whip him. The fight was right in the street and it lasted for 30 minutes. Walter was the toughest guy I ever saw. He just wore that big old boy out. I seen Walter take Hinton's Sunday punch and it didn't even make him blink. Port was a big, tough bugger and Walter was lanky and thin, but that feller hit Walter with everything he had and Walter just took it and kept comin' and Walter was the one that walked away when it was over. No one wanted to fight Walter after that.'"
While the Pyles relate that a boxing ring was set up on Main Street, Conway told the Roundup the boxing ring was actually inside the old Oxbow, on a platform.
In addition to roping and boxing, Conway recalls running and winning some of the foot races that part of the old rodeo. He also took part in the wild cow-milking contest.
"I was pretty good at it. All the rodeos had them back then," he said.
Conway was featured in a story in the April 6, 2001 edition of the Payson Roundup. The profile piece was called "Unsung heroes -- Quietly behind the scenes, ordinary people make an extraordinary difference."
"E.C. Conway's family has owned the Greenback Valley Ranch in the mountains above Tonto Basin since 1872. His father was born there in 1888.
"E.C., though was born in a shiny new hospital in Glove on Nov. 1, 1917. But since there were still no roads into his family's 20,000-acre spread, his mother took him home on horseback when he was 10 days old
"I was born one day, and 10 days later I was a rancher," he likes to say.
In a later interview for this special publication, Conway said he made the trip home from the hospital in a shoe box.
"E.C. worked the ranch through childhood and in 1939, he married Frances Brewton, with who he had four children. He took over much of the ranch during World War II, when his brother Clarence was in the Army and his father, Ed, had to cut down on the heavier work.
"He's been in this business long enough to have led horseback cattle drives to Globe and Phoenix, the latter of which took 10 to 12 days.
"He's been trying to accommodate the U.S. Forest Service ever since the 1930s, and environmentalists who want to ‘oust the cows' off federal land for the past decade. But now he's tired of talking about it, and doesn't want to cause trouble. All he says is, ‘When the Forest Service first started, they just had one forest ranger and one secretary. Now they have a staff you wouldn't believe.'"
Conway gave rise to a small rodeo dynasty. Both of his sons, Bill and Eddie, are bull riders. Bill also ropes. Eddie started bull riding when he was only 13 and went on to participate in the National Rodeo Finals in both 1963 and 1964.
Bill's son Kyle Conway is a team roper and has done well in the sport. He should, not only does he have the sport in his genes from his father and grandfather, his mother, Penny Conway is the 2001 World Team Roping Champion.
Penny Conway's father and brothers also competed in National Rodeo Finals; her father was in the inaugural national contest in 1959, participating in steer wrestling. Her brothers roped in other National Finals.
Conway was interviewed at length by Jinx and Jayne Pyle a few years ago. They shared the results of that interview with Roundup and Review readers through their Rim Review column, "Backtrackin.'" Excerpts of that three-part series give more of the history Conway has seen in the Rim Country over the years.
While gathering information about the history of the Payson Rodeo for a book we are writing, Jayne and I have covered a lot of country, talked to a lot of old-timers, and done some extensive research.
Of the old-timers we have talked to, 86-year-old Edward Charles "E.C." Conway, stands apart as a personality and as a source of otherwise forgotten information, Jinx wrote in the first column.
Sunday March 28, 2004, Jayne and I left Payson headed for Greenback Valley in the Sierra Anchas. We stopped in lower Tonto Basin at the home of Dale and Lorraine Cline and picked up Lorraine who went with us to Greenback, where we visited with E.C. Conway.
We headed east on the dirt road that led to Greenback. Both sides of the road were choked with cholla so thick that a person would have been hard put to walk off the road. This was part of the Cline cattle allotment and I commented on how hard it must be to work cattle in country like that. Lorraine assured us that it was.
As we left the cholla-covered lowlands and climbed into higher country, the cholla gave way to cedar trees and oak-browse. We dipped into a wide, shallow canyon about four miles from Greenback and Lorraine told us, "This is the old Sprowl Place. Doc Cline was killed right here. He had ridden into that little grove of oaks after a wild cow. Doc had his rope down and he was riding a green (young, unbroken) horse. When the horse came out the other end of the grove, Doc was hung up in his rope and the horse was dragging him, running scared. The horse turned up the canyon when he came out of the trees. Jake Randall was the first to see the wreck and tried to rope Doc's horse, but couldn't catch him. Steve Cline (Doc's son), who was on the ridge above the road, rode down to try to stop the horse. They met where the road crosses the canyon and Steve shot the horse, but it was too late for Doc. The date of this incident and Benjamin Baker "Doc" Cline's death was April 14, 1958. Doc was the only son of George and Roxie Cline.
Later that day, E.C. told us, "I pulled the rope off Doc's foot. It was a freak accident. Ordinarily the boot would have been jerked off and Doc wouldn't have been dragged, but the loop in Doc's rope had made a figure-eight around his spur and the toe of his boot and was drawn down tight, so it couldn't pull loose."
We topped a ridge and looked down into the fertile Greenback Valley. A spring-fed pond at the upper end of the valley was the source of irrigation water that was ditched across the meadows lower down. This was the pond that Fred Conway defended from the forest circus.
E.C. Conway led us to an outside table under the shade of a tree and surrounded by chairs. A friendly pup I judged to be about 8 months old had his head in my lap as soon as I was seated. E.C., who began to fiddle with a strand of hay bale twine that was tied to the table, called the dog to him. He promptly threw a half-hitch around the dog's muzzle and held him secured there. He reached down and petted the dog, assuring him everything was fine.
I flipped on our tape recorder to record and Jayne asked E.C. to talk about the Payson Rodeo. He laughed some and said, "Well, it has changed some in my time." He reached down to reassure the pup again, then told us a few rodeo stories.
All during the first story, E.C. would reach to pet the pup -- always just before the twitch on his nose caused the dog to go into panic mode. Just when it seemed that the dog could take it no longer, E.C. released him. The pup went over to lie down under the tree and didn't bother anyone again. Without saying a word to the pup and by seemingly playing a meaningless game with him, E.C. taught the little dog a lesson proving -- to me at least -- that no one understands animals like an old cowboy.
"Tell Jinx and Jayne about the old Sprowl Place," Lorraine, said to E.C.
"Well, Bill Sprowl just squatted there. He brought in some fruit trees, planted about 40 acres and built a house. He had a nice little place started. He didn't get along with the Indians though and one thing led to another. A bunch of Indians came by his place, probably had mischief on their minds. Anyhow, Sprowl was hid out up on the hillside and he shot one of those Apaches. That Indian crawled up the sand wash and got away, but he died of blood poisoning down at Walnut, about halfway back to Punkin Center from here. The Indians told my dad (Ed Conway) that they were going to kill Sprowl, so Dad went down and told Bill about it. He said, ‘I'm just telling you what the Indians told me. You can take it for what it's worth, but if you stay here, they will kill you.'
"Bill said that he wasn't going to leave. He would kill every Indian in the country if he had to, but they weren't going to run him off his place.
"Dad went back to see about him a few days later, though, and he was gone. He had packed his mules and high-tailed it out of there.
"He moved to down near Sunflower by the old mercury mine and lived there for a while."
I asked E.C. where they used to drive their sale cattle and he told us, "The first drive that I went on was to Phoenix. I was just a kid. After that we took them to Radium (near Wheatfields) to the railroad there. I remember that sometimes the train would whistle and stampede the cattle right back over the top of us." He laughed a little and shook his head. "Cattle aren't scared of a whistle like they used to be. I think it is because the jets fly over here low all the time. Hell, they scare me! Anyhow, the cows are used to the jets and don't even look up when they fly over. I think that is why they don't pay no mind to a train whistle."
As E.C.'s chickens walked up to us to get snacks of bread, I asked him if they had any trouble crossing the Salt River on those cattle drives to Wheatfields.
"No, not much. They would swim that river pretty good once we got them started. We crossed them where Poison Springs Canyon comes into the Salt, then drove them out up that canyon. We threw in with some other outfits -- George and Oscar Cline -- on those drives and sometimes we would have 700 head. It usually took about five days to get the cattle there."
E.C. looked across the meadow. "I only got eight cows now, but I got nine calves. One had twins," he said. "See that old cow there? She is blind, but she does all right in the meadow on that good grass.
"I got a good horse and I still ride some. I have to find a rock to stand on so I can get on him." He laughed.
Jayne continued with the second installment.
Lorraine Cline went with us and our visit was primarily for the purpose of getting E.C.'s information about the history of the Payson Rodeo, but when old-timers get together, it's difficult to stay on one subject. One old memory brings up another and so on.
E.C.'s grandfather, David Harer, had settled in Greenback in 1874. He was the first settler in that area and had brought in lots of hogs. I asked E.C. who had taken the last hogs out of Greenback.
"Clarence (his brother) and I did. We took out about 80-90 head of big ol' boar hogs. We caught ‘em and tied sticks in their mouths so they couldn't bite, then took a hack saw and cut their tusks off. Then we hauled ‘em to the auction in Phoenix. Clarence said when he took the first load down there -- you know how they got them little whips and they get down in the ring with ‘em? One of those fellers got in there with them big boars, and he just barely escaped by running up the wall!" E.C. laughed as his lone duck watched on in silence, ignoring the hound pup and hoping for a bite of someone's sandwich. No luck for the duck.
E.C. continued, "After that first trip to the auction, when them ‘whip poppers' got in some big hogs, they wanted to know where they come from and if anyone said anything about Greenback, they stayed out of the pens."
Big and mean, those acorn-fed hogs were something to contend with. Some of them weighed as much as 800 pounds with tusks bigger than jar lids, curved and razor-sharp.
E.C. said that his family did real well with the hogs during the years that the Roosevelt Dam was being built, 1906 to 1911. "They butchered ‘em and sold lard and bacon. They had a big smokehouse up there at the old place."
Klaus Halmer arrived to gather the eggs. Klaus is E.C.'s son-in-law, married to his daughter, Jeanne. Lorraine helped him gather the eggs that were laid in a trailer, behind a cactus, under a bush, etc. The day's take was four dozen.
I asked E.C. who had brought the first cattle into Greenback. "It was some people named Criswall. My folks said they used to milk them old range cows. Then Cone Webb bought them out."
When asked if there was a cemetery at Greenback, E. C. replied, "Not really, but some people are buried here. Two Packard kids are buried here, and my dad's twin sister who died at birth. In later years another guy died and they buried him across the creek under the cottonwoods. There was a post there, but they cut it down and now I don't know exactly where he was buried. I just don't remember his name."
We looked down the valley and saw the majestic Four Peaks, part of the Mazatzal Range, then back up the valley and saw Greenback Mountain, located in the southern reaches of the Sierra Anchas.
"That's Three Sisters Mountain right over there," E.C. said. "It's named for three of David and Josephine Harer's daughters, Annie, Alice, and Clara."
Annie married Henrich Frederich Christian Hardt and had eight children: Susie, David, Henry (grandfather of Billy Hardt), Robert, Lottie (mother of Buster Neal), Sadie, Joe (father of Connie Brown), and Leonard.
Alice married E.C. Conway and had seven children: Ed and his twin sister (Ed is the father of the E. C. Conway), Mary, David, Belle, Georgia (mother of LeRoy Tucker), and Irl.
Clara married a Mr. Gish.
Three Sisters Mountain is named for the above named three Harer daughters, but there were four more Harer daughters: Mary Elizabeth (Vineyard), Evaline who died as a baby, Narsissis Jane (Blake), and Sarah Frances (Packard).
"My grandmother and granddaddy raised the Blake kids," E.C. said.
"Their parents, Andrew and Narsissis (Harer) Blake, died when they were young, so they were raised here. They were born here. That was Mark, Garfield, and Eva."
Mark Blake married Grace Gladden, Garfield Blake married Lillie Emily Toby, and Eva married Hardy Schell (parents of Asbury Schell, world champion roper).
"Mark Blake was one wild cowboy. He ran a big old steer into Hell's Hole near Salome (pronounced Sal O May) and roped him. Dad asked him how he was going to get that steer out of there now that he'd tied him to a tree.
Mark said that anyplace he could catch a steer, he could lead him out of. He did, too. Another good cowboy was George Felton. He was the greatest bronc rider there ever was. He rode in Payson."
E. C. was coming forth with more knowledge. "I want to tell you how Punkin Center got its name. I've heard several different stories, but Kidd Jones told me the real story and I believe him. He used to get mad as . . . he knew the real story ‘cause he was there when it happened and when someone told a different story he sure didn't like it.
Story he tells is, Florence Packard owned the store then and it was called Packard's Store. John Norton had a freight wagon that ran from Phoenix to Payson. One day he drove up and saw ol' Florence Packard's Model T and him standin' by it. ‘Well, I'll be darned. It's ol' Uncle Josh from Punkin Center,' says Norton. That was a line from a song on one of those old big, round records that they used to have and the name stuck. They started calling it Punkin Center.