Audrie Harrison: A Man Of Flight And Fine Art

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Audrie Harrison is a soft-spoken, modest man. He has also had quite an adventurous life.

At 12 he started driving trucks for his father, Grady Harrison, who had the state's first statewide freight franchise in 1918.

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Audrie Harrison has wide-ranging interests: from engineering, flying, archaeology, geology and more. He took up pottery a number of years ago, by enrolling in a class, at what was then Eastern Arizona College in Payson. He began crafting incredible replicas of Native American pottery using "wild" clay and traditional coloring agents and eventually began teaching the class.

His first experience behind the wheel came out of necessity. He was a "swamper" for the company, loading and unloading the freight. His father sent him with a driver to bring 20 tons of mining equipment up to the Summit Mine.

"The driver was stopping every 30 minutes to check the load. Then he said he was going to stop and take a nap. He smelled of liquor. So I watched him and when he went to ‘check' the load, he was actually taking a swig from a whiskey bottle. When he fell asleep, I thought about it, then loaded him in the truck and got back on the road. It was a 16-hour trip between Payson and Phoenix. He didn't wake up until we were in town and then he made me let him out before we reached the office. When I reached the office, Dad wanted to know where the driver was. I told him and he was mad. He asked how I had managed and I told him I'd done all right. So, he had me take the load on out to the Summit Mine."

Harrison continued his trucking career with his father's business, running loads to and from Owens Bros. Lumber and mining operations around the area.

Grady Harrison brought electricity to Payson, starting with a small generator at his home, where they had the first electric refrigerator. Soon neighbors and businesses wanted electricity, too, and bigger generators were brought in.

Audrie had another job when his father started supplying electricity on a large scale. He had to work on the generators. Residential customers were charged $5 a month for power.

After the war, Northern Arizona Light & Power bought Harrison's electric operation, and that company later became part of the foundation of APS.

Harrison's parents were married in California. He had an uncle in Globe and he told them to come to Arizona. They made the journey in 1916.

"They lived in a cabin at Roosevelt and worked for my uncle, Paul Harrison, who had the mail contract and a homemade boat, which he used to take it from Globe to the other shore. My dad hauled the mail up here for him."

The family moved to Payson in 1918.

A friend of Grady's would fly into town, landing where Aero Drive is now. That friend was doing some work on his plane and gave Audrie an old propeller, which his father put on his tricycle. He said he was pretty little, but couldn't remember exactly how old he was. That old propeller on his trike gave birth to Audrie's love of flying ... a love that remains with him to this day, though his flying is limited to whenever he can talk somebody into letting him fly their plane. He still has that old propeller, too, which saw the business end of flying when Audrie rebuilt his first plane. He still has it.

He served in the Navy between 1944 and 1946 as a motor machinist mate in engineering, though he started as a seaman fireman. He was stationed in the Pacific during the last eight months of the war.

When Audrie came home after the war, he learned to fly. The airstrip was where Aero Drive is; it was 50 feet wide and 1,800 feet long.

"I soloed in seven hours," he said.

His father sold the freight business in 1948 or 1947, retired and did a lot of fishing. Roosevelt Lake, where Grady first lived in Arizona, was one of his favorite spots.

Audrie went to work in Cottonwood, working on aircraft. He also worked in the air ferry business, flying military planes from Houston, Texas.

"I've flew every military plane they had, except the P38," he said.

Over the years, he has had about a half-dozen planes and rebuilt more than he can count.

"By the time I was finished, they were all in better shape than they were originally."

At one time, he had the only plane in Payson and was called on more than once to get people to emergency medical care.

One call he remembers came about 1 a.m. -- there was a very sick baby that had to be flown to the hospital in Cottonwood.

"We had no lights, so had a couple of cars get on both ends of the air strip. When I saw that baby, I didn't think it would make it."

The flight was normally a 45-minute trip; he made it in 32 minutes. The baby survived.

In addition to ferrying planes and serving as the community's air ambulance, Audrie worked in airplane repair, became a general contractor, did electrical work and tiling.

He also had a knack with drafting and drawing blueprints. He essentially taught himself drafting, architecture and structural engineering in high school. There was no one qualified to teach the subjects, so the principal arranged to get him the books he needed and the instructor's text, so he would have the correct answers.

After a couple of heart attacks, he could not do much, so he decided to take a course on Indian pottery at Eastern Arizona College's Payson center.

When his father's freight business was in operation, clay would come off the tires and he liked to make stuff with it.

His first projects were a clay duck and a turkey pot (a small vessel fashioned with a turkey head and tail feathers).

"I polished it and fired it and it was beautiful," he said.

Since he knew where there was raw clay, he collected it, cleaned it and then used natural coloring minerals. The result is a collection of really extraordinary replicas of Native American pottery.

"I was a bit of a geologist and archaeologist and I really enjoyed that class. We had to make one pot to complete it, but by the fourth class, I had seven to eight pieces to be fired and people in the class wanted to buy my pots. The next year, I was asked to teach the class."

As much as he enjoyed doing pottery, he said he hasn't worked with it for four or five years.

Instead, he has been making "sucker trees" -- when you see the wooden displays with fancy suckers in gift and gourmet candy shops, chances are Audrie Harrison made it. He started designing and building the trees in the mid-1980s and now they are all over the world. They can be found in Australia and Russia.

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