When the Winchester Saloon burned down just before Halloween in 1997, it brought a rush of memories to old-timers. This spot, at the foot of the old Pine Road (today’s McLane Road), had been the social center of the community from the late 19th century. The saga began when Guy Barkdoll built a dance hall, a livery stable and an adobe house on the site. The hall was the only place in town large enough to accommodate community events, and it was used not only for Saturday night dances, but also for funerals, weddings, school plays and carnivals.
Dallas Wilbanks, later owner of the nearby Lone Pine Hotel, recalled, “We rode our horses from Gisela to Payson and left them there at the livery stable until we were ready to go home. I also remember skating in that old dance hall.”
Beloved teacher Julia Randall remembered how “we had our annual Christmas tree there. All the families took their presents down to the adobe dance hall and put them under the tree. Then everyone gathered on Christmas Eve and opened them.”
Theresa Boardman told about helping to fix the sacks of candy in 1912 for the celebration in Barkdoll’s Hall. The dance hall burned down, and Barkdoll rebuilt right away, but he outlawed the burning of candles on the community Christmas tree. Instead a tradition began of saving the tinfoil wrappers from candy bars or tobacco goods and making shiny tree ornaments from it. A tin foil star was placed at the top. However, even without burning candles Barkdoll’s dance hall burned down a second time in 1923 and there followed several years when there was no community center.
Finally, in 1928 Bill Packard purchased the property and constructed a new dance hall. An ice cream parlor and restaurant was attached, as well as a storeroom and a butcher shop. However, those who leased business space at Packard’s establishment were not allowed to sell any liquor, give it away or store it on the premises. Packard installed a hardwood maple floor in the dance hall, purchased from a bowling alley in Globe. In addition to the community Christmas tree, new functions were added to the hall, such as roller skating. From 1930 to 1938 the high school basketball games were played there. Payson’s early worship services were even held in the hall by a minister who came from Camp Verde once a month. He played an accordion, and folks placed their offerings in the accordion box on their way out after the service.
In 1935 the property was bought by Mart McDonald and his son-in-law Howard Childers. It was renamed the Elks Bar and Café, and a bar was established. Up to this time, those who wanted to drink brought their own moonshine and drank it outside. It soon became so overcrowded, a second “beer bar” was built to accommodate the cowboys who headed there as soon as they hit town. It was the beginning of more rowdy days at the west end of town. When Childers shot a large bull elk he had the head mounted and it hung inside the bar with a cigarette hanging out of its mouth.
Howard’s wife, Rose Childers, alternated between cooking in the attached restaurant and playing the piano in the dance hall. In an oral history she even boasted, “I used to play the piano at all the dances (and) I was the one that built the cowboy crowd and made the place into a bar.” She also had slot machines installed for the benefit of the rodeo, but, she said, “Not all the money went to the Payson rodeo.”
Their son Ed recalled that in the basement, below the dance floor, there were several rooms inhabited by girls from out of town who operated their “business” during rodeo days. Ed Childers also recalled that it was down there he learned to gamble on the dusty floor, and it was the location of his “coming of age” though he declined to name the girl.
Through those years the dance hall continued to be the place for multiple community usage such as funerals and weddings, as well as political meetings where over the years Governor Howard Pyle, Senator Barry Goldwater, and Governor Ernest McFarland stumped for the public.
One old-timer recalled that Ida Jane Armer and her brother Eddie would set the place alive with their fast-moving feet. The same fellow said that as boys they would sneak into the back windows and pull the main electrical switch, plunging the hall into darkness with its dancers.
But the dance went on. Marguerite Noble told of dancing as a child to “Put Your Little Foot” while Rose Childers played the piano, Bill Haley on the saxophone, and Pappy Haught played the fiddle.
Anna Mae Deming liked to remember “there were no baby sitters in those days, as entire families attended the dance. Children learned to dance from the first-grade, and when they got tired they were put to bed with a quilt on a bench in the far corner of the stage while their parents danced on until the fiddlers gave out and began to play ‘Home Sweet Home.’ The sleeping children were gathered up and taken home.”
Ed Childers wrote, “Until death stilled them there were two beings who never missed anything that took place at the Elks. Both were friendly to all, totally harmless and, ironically, confirmed teetotalers. They were Bert Slater and Jim Deming’s dog Jiggs. When Bert wasn’t publishing the Payson Roundup, he was organizing a square dance at the Elks. When Jiggs wasn’t attending a funeral, a wedding or a ball game, he was going to school with the rest of us and then bidding fond adieu to patrons departing the Elks. The dog never slept.”
In the 1940s the business exchanged hands several times. It was sold to a Phoenix businessman Walt Clure, then Dave Houghton, then Frank Colcord, and then back to Howard Childers. He sold the establishment to a tough cowgirl and widow from Rye, rancher Polly Brown. She installed shuffleboard, but during nights of heavy drinking she hid the steel pucks behind the bar to prevent cowboys from throwing them at each other. Tradition says she kept two pigs behind the bar, and fed them the left over beer, which fattened them up wonderfully. Polly also launched weekly picture shows Saturday afternoons in the hall.
On Friday, June 26, 1959, Pat Randall tells of hearing shots from Polly’s saloon. She went over to find Leonard Hubbard had shot his girlfriend Faye as she sat at the bar, and then he killed himself. Polly Brown then wiped up the blood and they proceeded with the evening dance.
Things were not destined to get any quieter. In the mid 1960s Polly Brown sold to Jim Roller, who moved the bar into the dance hall and changed the name of the place to The Gay 90s. After a few years he sold to Mabel Day, and eventually ownership went to John and Susie Greenleaf and John’s brother Rans Greenleaf.
During the big snowfall of 1967 the Elks roof stood firm while many roofs in the Rim Country collapsed.
Jim Deming said he knew why, “Happy memories held it together.”
However, the memories were not always happy. The Greenleaf family changed the name again, and the establishment was called The Winchester. They did “massive restoration of the building, including restoring the old maple dance floor to its original lovely sheen, and giving the outside of the building its Old West appearance,” according to John and Rans’ mother Zona.
On the night of Feb. 6, 1982 John Greenleaf was shot and killed in the parking lot by an intoxicated patron. His brother Rans kept the Winchester operating until he sold it in 1984. A series of new owners attempted to keep it running, but the “old days” of wild and wooly cowboys had come to an end with Payson’s growing sophistication. In 1995 the Winchester ceased to be a bar and grill, no longer a viable business. New life for the building included an auction gallery followed by a feed and pet supply store, leased by John Scott Williams of Mesa.
At 8:49 p.m., Sunday, Oct. 26, 1997, the first fire alarm was sounded and in two minutes the Payson Fire Department was there. It was soon joined by fire crews from Mesa del Caballo, Pine/Strawberry and Diamond Star. The Winchester fire was so intense they had all they could do to protect the surrounding buildings. It was the finale to a long tradition of stories and memories for Payson “old-timers.”
Sources: Jayne Peace, historian; the Ryden Architects report of 1991, A Historic Survey of Payson, Arizona, memories published in the Payson Roundup and oral histories from the Rim Country Museum by Helyn Chilson Conway, Myrtle Warter, Theresa Boardman, Mary Vaughn, Anna Mae Deming, Ernest Pieper, Ida Bell Haught Garrels Martin, Margaret Taylor Murphy, Julia Randall, Marguerite Noble, Ed Childers.