The Story Of Payson, Arizona

founded by miners, built by ranchers: the story of payson, arizona - Chapter 8: PAYSON BEGAN AN AUGUST TRADITION

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Photo courtesy of the Rim Country Museum

Cowboys line up on Payson’s Main Street to watch the 1890 rodeo in front of Pieper’s Saloon.

The excitement and terror of Apache raids in the Rim Country had culminated on July 17, 1882 at the Battle of Big Dry Wash. Daily life was becoming less anxious, and settlers could get down to the real business of cattle raising and prospecting.

Out in Diamond Valley (today’s Whispering Pines) 22-year-old Charlie Meadows was trying to keep the family together on their homestead. [1] His father and brother had been killed during the renegades’ sweep up the East Verde River and his brother, John Valentine Meadows, had been seriously wounded. Their mother, with the youngest siblings, had too much heartache to return to the ranch, so Charlie and John moved them to Phoenix. Then the two men with their two younger brothers worked hard to get the ranch up and paying for itself, while John’s badly wounded arm mended slowly.

However, all work and no play is unheard of even when you live up a river and far from any neighbors. The inventive minds of the cowboys were at work. Why not take the skills of everyday ranching and use them for fun?

The question was posed early in the summer of 1884, a few months after Payson had been named and given a post office. Charlie was in town for supplies and the camaraderie of friends. Sitting on the steps of the mercantile, he and some of the other cowboys spun out their idea for entertainment. Why not put out the word for folks to come to town for a calf and steer roping contest? They would hold it during August when the ranchers had a slack time before the fall roundup.

“Let’s do it,” chimed in Joe Gibson, one of the older cowboys present. At 40, Joe had been here about the same length of time as the others, five or six years. He ranched and farmed in Gisela and Round Valley.

When O. C. Felton spoke up in favor of the plan, it cast the deciding vote. Felton was a well-known cowboy who had traveled with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show in the East and in Europe. Later he would become an elected official on the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors.

The word “rodeo” comes from the Spanish “rodear,” a term used by vaqueros to round up, encircle or move cattle. Since having fun is inherent to human nature, cowboys were quick to make games of the skills developed in the cattle business. Roping, bronc riding and bulldogging moved from the corral to the arena in America during the 1870s and 1880s. Nearly every ranching town in the Western United States was holding informal public exhibitions of roping and riding skills. It was an idea whose time had come. Organized rodeo events are said to have begun in Denver, Colo. in 1876, but over in Deer Tail, Colo. they had a bronco busting contest in 1868 and awarded the prize of a suit of clothes to the winner.

The Encyclopedia Americana had a different angle. “Most authorities agree that the first public contest for prizes for bronco riding and steer roping was held in an open field near the courthouse in Pecos, Texas on July 4, 1883. No admission was charged. The first contest for which an admission fee was charged and prizes were awarded was held at Prescott, Arizona Territory, on July 4, 1888.”[2]

It was an auspicious group of settler families who planned that first rodeo in Payson, and as enthusiasm for the idea increased, one of the most vocal was Johnnie Chilson. Although he was only 17 years old, he already had established himself as a skilled horseman and cowboy throughout the Tonto Basin and Payson areas. John Collins Chilson was the son of Emer and Margaret Ann Chilson, and had arrived in Globe with his family as a boy from California in 1878. His father opened the store at the mining camp of Marysville west of Payson, but Johnnie was soon on his own, working different ranches between Payson and Globe.

Columnist Roscoe Wilson wrote of Johnnie, “During the old days of the annual ‘world’s fair’ at Payson where horse racing, bronco busting and calf roping contests were held on the main street, Johnnie was one of the leading spirits in the rough and tumble affair, and generally had a horse or two to run.”[3]

That first roping contest, August 1884, was held in the meadow where the lumber mill would later stand, near today’s intersection of Main Street and the Beeline Highway. Not only did the cowboys come to compare roping abilities, but to show the skills of their ponies.

The contests quickly became an annual event, and ranch families from Pleasant Valley to Strawberry would gather for a week-long party. It quickly rivaled the community Christmas celebrations as a time when family and friends gathered for reunions and visiting. Recipes were exchanged, sweethearts discovered, friendships renewed, news and gossip shared, and everybody blew off the steam that had pent up over the preceding months.

Each year the celebration, soon called the August Doin’s, developed new events. At first no money was given, just bragging rights, but soon monetary prizes were offered to the competitors and gambling on who might win became a big sidelight. Bronc busting, bull riding, steer roping and tying were added to calf roping, and there were always horse races. Cow ponies were set up in matched races, but as the betting money grew, real racehorses from outside the area were introduced.

Charlie Meadows had so much fun at Payson’s first rodeo he entered every contest around, and won most of them. Riding his favorite horse “Snowstorm” he paraded into Prescott in 1886 and Phoenix in 1888, setting new records each time in the steer tying contests. Showmanship was boiling in Charlie’s blood, and by the 1890s he looked like Buffalo Bill with long hair, mustache and goatee.

As the sport grew, Charlie participated throughout the West, and he became so well known he was invited to join a Wild West show that went to Australia in the summer of 1890. That summer Charlie returned to bid Payson goodbye and enjoy the 6th Annual August Doin’s. During that visit, he threw a never-to-be-forgotten party for the whole town, celebrating his sister Maggie’s wedding. Invitations had gone out, and at least 200 persons were present on Payson’s Main Street for what would be a double wedding. Everyone was on horseback, including Justice of the Peace Bill Burch who performed the weddings.

Maggie Meadows married Tom Beach, and her friend Julie Hall married Emer Cole. As a wedding present, Charlie gave each couple all the Meadows’ cattle they could round up and brand on Burch Mesa.

Charlie later said, “Of all the Wild West shows, I never expected to see one equal to this. The riding on Burch Mesa that day, beyond question of doubt in my mind, was the most reckless and daring ever displayed at one place in so short a time.”

The August rodeo soon had to be moved from the meadow to Main Street near the junction where Pieper’s Saloon was the favorite “watering hole.”

The porches of the growing number of stores and houses served as grandstands. Wagons, and later autos, formed the “arena” barriers along the south side of the street, and cattle shoots were constructed on the north side where the Womans (sic) Club building would later stand.

Bucking horses and bulls often slammed into the vehicles, and one year a participating forest ranger, Monta Steward from Pleasant Valley, rode his runaway horse into a back yard, tearing down all the clothes on the lines.

It was during calf roping that Sam Haught chased his critter down the street to Boardman’s Mercantile. Mr. Boardman was on the front porch watching the event when the calf came up onto the porch and ran his small horn through Mr. Boardman’s shoe.

A variety of side shows increased to keep everyone of every age occupied. There was a tamed bear, which became less tame as the children poked at it through the cage. One year Myrth Pyle got too close making faces at the bear, and the animal reached through the cage to swipe at her. He caught the collar of her dress and ripped the garment off her back. She bolted the scene.

There was cock fighting, pole climbing, pig catching, sack races, foot races, and pitching dollars to the line. Occasionally there was chicken pulling — where the chicken was buried in the road up to its neck and the cowboys rode by at a full clip leaning over to grab the chicken by its neck and pull it out. Another event was calf roping for men over 40. Then there was the bed race, in which a cowboy was on his bedroll and at a signal he had to get up, put on his hat and boots, roll up his bed, put it on his horse and ride off.

When Charlie Meadows and his cohorts planned a week of summer fun before the fall roundup in 1884, they never envisioned what a grand annual event it would become. But then, at that early date, Payson was just on the brink of becoming a real town.

Next: Payson Gets Its First Hotel

[1] Charlie Meadows was actually named Abraham Henson Meadows at birth, but his father was a strong state’s rights advocate and a Confederate sympathizer. When President Lincoln asserted the Union over state’s rights, John Meadows was furious, and to express his anger he changed his son’s name from Abraham to Charles.

[2] 1856, Vol. 23, pg 620. During the years of World War II the Prescott “Frontier Days” rodeo almost was given up, but local ranchers banded together and held it each of those summers, limiting participation to local cowpunchers and barring professionals. Payson’s Rodeo began four years earlier, but Prescott keeps their claim to “The world’s oldest rodeo” because Payson did not charge admission or include professionals for genuine prize money until later. But even Prescott’s claim ignores earlier claims from Colorado and Texas.

[3] Pioneer Cattlemen of Arizona, 1951

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