Knocked Down, Stomped On, Cussed Out: Rodeo Boss Loves His Rodeo

Cowboying helped raise Bill Armstrong's joyful sprawl of a family, now he wants to make sure rodeo never dies in Payson

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t'll drive a cowboy crazy

It'll drive the man insane

photo

Payson Rodeo Boss Bill Armstrong will preside over Payson's 124th rodeo.

And he'll sell off everything he owns

Just to pay to play the game

And a broken home and some broken bones

Is all he'll have to show

For all the years that he spent chasin'

This dream they call rodeo.

-- Garth Brooks

He's been stomped. Cussed out. Beat up. Passed over. Fussed over. Fumed at. Broke up, knocked down, bucked off, stepped on, kicked out -- called back. And in his turn, he's kicked, yelled, hollered, loved, lost, won, slugged, praised, ridden, roped, tumbled -- and always, always, always gotten up and dusted off and climbed back up into the saddle.

Because you can't keep a good cowboy down.

And through it all -- Payson Rodeo Boss Bill Armstrong, 70, sure has loved his rodeo.

Now he's getting set to preside over the 124th staging of the World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo, which has come back from almost as many broken bones, hospital stays, divorces, feuds, and wild nights with friends you'd die for if you didn't accidentally kill them as Bill Armstrong himself.

"Well I lost about five different wives because of rodeo. Turns out, every once in a while you have to say ‘hello' to your wife. But all in all, rodeo's always been good to me and I put my whole heart back in it," said Armstrong, in one of the brief, unflurried moments in the runup to the three-day rodeo that will lure some of the best cowboys in the country and thousands of spectators to Payson.

Along the way, Armstrong has ended up with 12 kids from a string of marriages.

He now has 39 grandkids and 12 great-grandkids, who come and go at his Star Valley Ranch like about half the rodeo cowboys in the country.

The sprawl of buildings and corrals has served as a combination teen-center and cowboy flop house since he moved in back in 1972 -- an escapee from Scottsdale ready to live the cowboy dream in Zane Grey country.

Four of his sons became professional cowboys -- at least for a time. His boys have accumulated three state championships in assorted events and one son was a national champion rodeo cowboy in high school.

He relied on rodeo to help raise that great, energetic passel of kids.

"The rodeo kept them out of trouble and out of dope," he says.

Armstrong learned to love the mixed virtues of small-town life growing up in Winslow, Arizona, where his dad was principal of the high school. He went off to college at Northern Arizona University in 1956 on a football scholarship. He hurt his back playing football, which ruled out the career as a rodeo cowboy he had hankered after. So he graduated, worked for the railroad, and ended up running a gas station in Scottsdale.

But he missed living in a small town with cowboys, so he moved to Payson. He supported his family and his rodeo habit mostly by running a Texaco station that for years operated in the now-vacant lot across from where Burger King is now in Payson. After 35 years in the service station business, he sold off his four-pump gas station when Texaco raised the rent to $8,000 a month.

He's been running a hodgepodge of other businesses since then, including the Star Valley Pawn Shop. But mostly he's been loving the rodeo, which has filled up his life with friends and adventure.

"It's darn near a full-time job," he said of his years of involvement along with a volunteer committee of rodeo lovers who lavish time and love on the preparations for the event. "But it's paid off. Given me some of the best friends in the world."

Every year around rodeo time, his ranch house fills up with cowboys on the circuit who can't find a room -- or maybe just can't afford one. Although the top cowboys now make a good living from rodeo, the circuit also draws the tough dreamers, who break bones but don't make much cash in their life on the road.

"The road is what burns most cowboys out -- the miles and miles and miles. Used to be, they all partied hard," but now they're more like professional athletes. "They train as good as any athlete, smoke free, tobacco free, alcohol free and they do three or four rodeos a week."

But they're still the best sort of people, he says.

"The rodeo people -- if they're friends, then they're really friends. It's a big family from the littlest guy to the world champion cowboy -- it's just a big family," he said.

A sometimes brawling, hard-drinking dysfunctional family, as it turns out.

The Payson Rodeo has just come through the equivalent of a divorce, breakup and reconciliation -- in the midst of which it moved out of the beloved family ranch house and wound up in some kind of new fangled luxury condo with a homeowners association.

The rodeo grounds had for decades drawn top cowboys and big crowds to a smallish, log arena in Rumsey Park surrounded by tall ponderosa pines. But in an attempt to accommodate growing crowds and create a facility that could also host conventions and trade shows, the town moved the rodeo to a sunny, open space across from the casino at the entrance to town.

In the process, a feud got started between the Rim Country Regional Chamber of commerce and the Payson Pro Rodeo Committee, which has staged the rodeo for years on sweat and a handshake.

When talk of lawyers and contracts and liability insurance intruded, the chamber and the rodeo committee got into one of those vigorous and inexplicable family fights -- that for a time threatened the future of the rodeo in Payson, and which was reflected in a sharp drop in attendance.

But former Rodeo Boss Chuck Jackman and dedicated volunteers with both the rodeo committee and the chamber have patched up their differences -- as evidenced by appointing the old-time, rodeo-loving, hell-raising Armstrong as this year's rodeo boss.

"I'm just one little monkey in the band," he said, in resisting a profile interview.

"Payson was founded on the rodeo and I would just like to keep that heritage going. I know Chuck Jackman was a cool rodeo boss and we have one of the best in the United States for our size of rodeo. It takes the whole committee to pull it off --and the people in the bleachers. Takes a lot more than a committee and some cowboys to put a rodeo on."

Chamber owns the rodeo and contracts for the stock handler, concessions, publicity and other functions. The chamber contracts with the Payson Pro Rodeo Committee to handle all the hands-on work at the event, including getting the stock in and out of the events, opening the chutes and a thousand other tasks.

The chamber pays the committee $7,000 and lets them collect the roughly $7,000 from a parking concession, which the committee uses to fund a host of community programs -- since volunteers do the rodeo work. The Payson Pro Rodeo Committee also stages its own rodeo in May.

Armstrong said once the chamber and the rodeo committee worked out their issues, the chamber invited him to serve as rodeo boss. "I said if I got a letter from the board, I'd do it," says Armstrong.

He said the rodeo committee had dwindled during the feud years, but now the committee membership has doubled to 130 people. "Now the cream of the crop of Payson has joined the rodeo committee," he said.

He predicted that once the town covers the arena, attendance will jump back up. "One of these days, it'll be covered -- and you won't be able to get in, they'll have so many people."

Because you can't keep a good rodeo down.

It's bulls and blood

It's dust and mud

It's the roar of a Sunday crowd

It's the white in his knuckles

The gold in the buckle

He'll win the next go 'round

It's boots and chaps

It's cowboy hats

It's spurs and latigo

It's the ropes and the reins

And the joy and the pain

And they call the thing rodeo

-- Garth Brooks

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