125 Years Of Rodeo Makes Lots Of History

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Photo courtesy of Northern Gila County Historical Society

When the early rodeos were held on Payson’s Main Street, cars, trucks and wagons were circled around the contest area to create an arena for events.

The spirit of the West lives on through the sport of professional rodeo. And that spirit will descend on Payson with the 125th Annual World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo. Events are planned from Wednesday, Aug. 12 through Sunday, Aug. 16.

Professional rodeo cowboys keep the skills of the West’s working cowboys alive. Jobs such as roping cattle and breaking horses, which were refined by 19th century cowhands, continue today in competition among rodeo cowboys.

Rodeo was born on the ranches of western America. Informal competitions sprang up among cowpunchers to determine the best riders and ropers.

Payson’s rodeo history dates back to 1884, giving it claim to the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo held each August.

Organizers of the first Payson Rodeo were Abraham Henson Meadows — known later as “Arizona Charlie” Meadows (1860-1932) — who moved to the Rim Country with his parents from California in 1877, and young John Collins Chilson (1867-1924) who also moved to this area from California in 1879.

The word passed along from ranch to ranch, and on the third weekend of August in 1884, cowboys participated in the first Payson Rodeo. This first rodeo was held in Midtown Pasture, a little southwest of the intersection of Highway 87 and Old Main, now the site of Sawmill Crossing.

A few ranchers and cowboys gathered to see how their roping and riding abilities and the speed of their horses compared to those of their neighbors. Horse racing, bronc riding and the ranch-born roping events — along with a little silver dollar pitching — dominated the early agenda. Other events were soon added. Cockfights, greased pig contests, sack races and foot races became part of the celebration.

The cowboys also had what they called a “chicken pulling” contest. The fowl was buried in the street with only its head and neck sticking out. A rider would thunder by at a full gallop, lean down and jerk the unfortunate bird flopping from the dirt, then return to the starting point to await his time.

There were no chutes in those early days. The broncs were led or dragged to the middle of the street and eared down by a couple of cowboys.

Someone cinched a rig onto the horse’s back, and a twister (bronc rider) stepped onboard. This was not a timed event until later years. The horse was ridden until his head came up — or the rider was thrown. Twisters usually brought their own broncs to those first rodeos. They would ride the broncs of other competitors, as well as their own, so that everyone got a fair shake.

During the street rodeos of the early 1920s, those bronc riders began testing their skills on the local whiteface and Durham cattle. There was no Brahma stock at the Payson Rodeo until 1950, when stock contractors began hauling them to Payson.

Anything that could buck was fair game: wild steers, cows, bulls, bareback horses. Some enterprising cowboys even tried pulling their saddles off horses and putting them on bulls. Screwing the saddle onto the back of the bull sometimes furnished considerable more entertainment than the ensuing ride afterwards. This practice did not last, because the saddles would turn on the loose-skinned bulls.

Danny Freeman, author of the World’s Oldest Rodeo 100-Year History 1888-1988, claims that Prescott, Ariz. held the world’s first rodeo in 1888. We accept that. But, as will be shown, Payson held its first rodeo four years earlier in 1884.

Freeman states that “those early contests in Payson were some local cowboys competing in roping. They were not organized. The cowboys just came together and roped against each other.”

This is not the case. Local cowboys did compete in roping events — and they also competed in riding and racing events. Additionally, there was organization, or the cowboys and spectators would not have known when and where to gather. Entry fees were taken and prize money was paid.

We know from Charlie Chilson (March 1, 1968 Payson Roundup article and 1972 Jayne Peace interview) that his father, John C. Chilson, was not only a rodeo organizer, along with Arizona Charlie Meadows, but both were also contestants in the first Payson Rodeo held in 1884 in the Midtown Pasture. Charlie was sure that the year was 1884. Additionally, Charlie Chilson told Jayne Peace that Charlie Meadows joined a Wild West show about 1890.

Dick Robbins (1900-1983), the son of John and Emma Cole Robbins, was a top rodeo hand in the 1930s and 1940s. He traveled and roped, often with Lee Barkdoll. In a 1981 interview with Jayne Peace, Robbins said that the Payson Rodeo started in 1884.

Maggie Solomon Journigan Miller, wife of Payson pioneer Julian Journigan, told Jayne Peace in an interview held on Dec. 16, 1983: “Since my husband had to be gone so much, I took a job cooking for Polly Brown at the old 16-to-1 Saloon in Payson. That was in 1921, just a year or so before it burned to the ground. They were still having the rodeos in the street. There were still lots of the old cowboys around then. I remember Jess Chilson and Wash Gibson both said they were at the first Payson Rodeo. Jess said his mother had to take him because he was only a tiny baby, but his dad, Emer, was a contestant in that first one. Jess said he was born in 1884, so he knew that was the year the rodeos started in Payson.”

The influence the Payson Rodeo has had on rodeo history is far reaching, there are still many people across this country who fondly remember the excitement and anticipation they felt as they attended their first August Doin’s.

Portions of this article are from “Rodeo 101 - History of the Payson Arizona Rodeo 1884-1984” by Jinx Pyle and Jayne Peace Pyle, published by Git a Rope! Publishing, Inc., with the authors’ permission.

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