The Story Of Payson, Arizona



Photo courtesy of Stan Brown

This is how the Herron Hotel on Main Street looked in the late 1890s. Note the rock store in the background.


As the newly settled town of Payson grew, so did the services it provided. The mercantile stores, saloons and dance halls were established first. These were not simply places to buy supplies or to be entertained, but were centers along Main Street where folks gathered to share the news and support one another. This far-flung land of ranches and mines under the Mogollon Rim was big and lonely, and coming to town was one of a week’s biggest events. As roads improved, “outsiders” also came, and the demand for lodging facilities was acute.

In 1888 Ben and Sarah Stewart arrived in town and purchased a frame house on Main Street in which they conducted a business of lodging and meals. Their business grew and they added rooms to the “Stewart Hotel.” The family farmed in Starr (sic) Valley to raise hay for their livery stable, fruits and vegetables for the meals they served. The hotel entertained freighters, ranchers and miners who came to town for supplies and needed to stay overnight.

Age caught up with the Stewarts and in 1909 they sold their business to Sarah’s cousins, Frank and Molly Herron. The Stewarts moved to Oklahoma where they were closer to their children.

The Herrons used the original Stewart Hotel for a restaurant, and proceeded to build a 20-room, two-story hotel next door. The new Herron Hotel, with its wide verandas encircling the structure on both floors, added to the modernizing appearance of Main Street.[1]

In 1918 the Herrons sold their hotel to ranchers Harry and Polly Brown, and two months later, in November, the hotel burned to the ground. Meanwhile, another family named Stewart, not related to Ben and Sarah, had come to Arizona from Texas in 1890 to work in the mines, and in 1894 they moved into town. Samuel K. and Margaret Stewart laid claim to a large tract of land that ran from Main Street north along today’s Colcord Road to Bonita, and then east to today’s Payson Regional Medical Center and back along Main Street. They farmed the land and became active in the Payson community.

In 1904 the Stewarts purchased Tammany Hall from J. W. Wentworth and opened a boarding house that became Payson’s primary hotel after the Herron building burned. This property was at the southwest corner of McLane and Main Street, where McLane comes from the south to junction with Main Street. They also built a restaurant next door to the west (603 W. Main). When the triangle rang out each noon folks knew it was time for one of Margaret Stewart’s delicious meals. That ringing became a timepiece for Paysonites.

Margaret’s family-style meals were celebrated far and wide, and it was “all you can eat” for 50 cents. The breakfast steaks were a specialty, prepared from beef that came from just next-door.

The Stewarts’ daughter Ruth had married merchant Ed Bonacker, whose store was west of the restaurant. In the rear of his property, Bonacker had the first slaughterhouse in Payson, and supplied the Stewart’s restaurant with meat.

On Sundays there was always chicken and dumplings, and teacher Julia Randall later recalled, “She never missed a Sunday sending up (dinner) to my mother and dad...” Miss Randall’s father George A. Randall was bedfast after a stroke, having been Payson’s Justice of the Peace for many years.

During those years Sam Stewart was the town constable, and the two families were close friends.

On Saturday nights the local dance would adjourn from the nearby dancehall, and the Stewarts served a midnight supper. After the meal the dance would reconvene until dawn.

The old Tammany Hall burned down while the Stewarts owned it, and years later Grady Harrison built a garage on that corner.

The Stewart’s restaurant building still stands, bought by Harry Connolly in 1945 for a dry goods and grocery store. In 1955 Archie Damron took ownership of the building, operating the Red Barn Café where Margaret Stewart had operated her famous restaurant.

After his café closed in 1964, Archie ran a TV shop and the new cable company from that historic building. The Damrons later moved to Arkansas.

Meanwhile another hotel was in the making. In 1908 the J. W. Boardmans sold their store at the corner of the old Pine Road to William and Clara Hilligas, along with their home just west of the store. In 1915 the Hilligas family expanded the house to become a boarding house called The Hilligas Hotel, while they built themselves a new house just west of that along with several small houses for rentals.

In June 1928 the hotel was sold to Mrs. Laura Netherlin, and subsequently to other owners, during which time it came to be called The Lone Pine Hotel. In 1950 Dallas and Anna Wilbanks purchased the hotel, and it remained in the Wilbanks family through several generations until the present time.

Back at the east end of Main Street, the McDonald store building across from the Pieper Saloon was sold to Mary Stadlmann in 1920. She expanded it into a hotel named The Payson Lodge, while Mart McDonald continued to operate a café in the hotel. Under the management of Mrs. Stadlmann it became a place of questionable enterprise. The multi-gabled lodge faced Main Street at the corner of today’s Bootleg Alley, but behind it were several small houses, or “cribs,” where Stadlmann’s “shady ladies” did their business. Documentation of this activity is hard to come by since “old-timers” born in the 1920s only heard rumors. Their parents would not discuss prostitution, so the stories remain in the shadows.

Theresa Boardman later recounted her memories of the Payson Lodge. “That’s the one that had the girls. Yeah, they were the bunch. Boy. They was going to fix this town, make an oolie-doolie out of it. But they didn’t.”[2]

Payson was saved from such blatant indiscretions when a suspicious fire burned down the lodge as well as the “cribs.” There were no fire inspectors to investigate the cause, and Mary Stadlmann was put out of business. Suggestions made over the years were that the Payson Lodge was not the only boarding house so engaged. Rooms above some of the saloons, such as the 16-to-1, were also suspect.

The next building on the Stadlmann property was The Pioneer Bar and Café. Its long, wide shaded porch and hitching post became a traditional gathering place during the 1940s. Grady and Nellie Harrison were the owners when the Pioneer burned down in 1952. Fred Joy erected there a red sandstone facade from rocks he had retrieved from the old Payson Commercial building. Joy died of a heart attack before he could complete a building behind the facade, although that stone wall was later used in the building that occupies the property today.

Next: Early Politics in Payson

[1] The Rim Country Museum in Payson’s Green Valley Park is designed as a replica of the old Herron Hotel. On Main Street, the Stewart-Herron complex was located at today’s addresses of 602, 604, and 606 Main Street.

[2] Oral history taken with Theresa Boardman by Ira Murphy. The tapes and transcripts of the Murphy oral histories are in the archives of the Rim Country Museum.


Tim Barrett 8 years ago

Mr. Brown,

Thanks so much for these historical reflections. I grew up in Arizona and love it's rich history. My parents live in Payson, and it has always been my favorite Arizona town. I have many fond memories of fishing on the East Verde and Christopher Creek as well as Tonto Creek. Mr. John King and his wife. Mr. Gene Packard of Pine and his wife. And of course the "Worlds Oldest Continous Rodeo" in Payson!


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