The Story Of Payson, Arizona

Chapter 32, The Long Road to a Townsite


It was not until the year 1930 that Payson residents ceased to be living in the Tonto National Forest and could call the community a town. The problem had its roots 46 years earlier.

When Green Valley residents turned their calendars to the 1880s they began to agitate for making the village a town. At that point residents were simply “squatters” on federal land, and whenever property was bought and sold it could only include the improvements, not the ground under them. Furthermore, residents wanted their own post office, but all of this would require an official survey.

Store owners Frank C. and John H. Hise knew just the person for the job. It would be their father John Hise who was a professional surveyor. The community hired him, and together with local blacksmith James Callaghan, the survey was made in 1883. This led to the establishment of a post office and the naming of the town for the Illinois Congressman who sponsored the bill, Representative Payson.

Old and new residents rejoiced to be able to buy and sell property, but there was a fly in the ointment.1

John Hise had neglected to register the town survey with either the federal, territorial or county governments. This meant that nothing had changed and residents were still unregistered squatters on federal land. This oversight was not discovered until 1900, and no one could prove there had ever been a survey.

When the Forest Homestead Act was passed by Congress in 1906 it permitted citizens to appropriate lands that could be farmed within the newly created national forests. A second Homestead Act in 1912 clarified that only land usable for agricultural purposes could be patented, and many Payson residents were denied patents because their property was not viable for agriculture. Most residents had established themselves on the flats along The American Gulch, which meant that Payson grew up along Main Street adjoining the meadow and the washes that fed into it. Since some crops could be raised on the wetlands and livestock grazed, those folks rushed for patents. James O. Hill, August Pieper and William Thompson registered in 1910, followed by Margaret Chilson Platt and William Hilligas in 1911. William St. John patented his land on Ox Bow Hill in 1912 though he had lived there since 1878. All around Payson, families were gaining formal ownership of forest land they had occupied for years.

The best land being taken, homestead patents began to expand the settlement north, southeast and east from 1913 to 1923. Throughout these years correspondence and petition had continued to fly between the town leaders and the federal government. The supervisor of the Tonto National Forest at Roosevelt, W. H. Reed, believed that since “the settlement at Payson was made prior to the creation of the forest, it can be considered as a bona fide townsite settlement and should be so treated ...” He urged the residents to proceed to secure a patent for the townsite. However, the federal offices in Washington were insisting the stores and hotels take out special use permits, and, Reed said in further correspondence, “I suppose it will be necessary for the residents to take out permits also.”2

Red tape prevailed for the next two decades as the town filed petitions and forest officials argued among them.3

One issue had to do with the Payson Forest Administrative Site (ranger station) and parts of it that intruded into the proposed town boundaries. A letter from Roscoe Willson, then forest supervisor, to Payson Ranger Fletcher Beard, and dated October 1909, reads, “I am today in receipt of notification from the Acting Commissioner of the General Land Office, that 4.28 acres had been eliminated from the Payson Administrative Site ... and is therefore now open for entry and may be included within the Payson townsite. I suggest you keep this matter strictly to yourselves, and that you discuss it only with the townsite committee, if at all.”

For reasons lost in the mysteries of federal bureaucracy, the matter was not settled until January 1930. That is when Gila County’s superior court judge was authorized by the federal government to serve as a trustee for the new town cut from the Tonto National Forest.

It was only in November 1929 that the years of letter writing and petitions resulted in an official survey being made and submitted. On March 3, 1930 Payson was given official standing as a town when the townsite was formally transferred from the national forest to the Gila County Board of Supervisors.

The date called for a celebration, just 46 years to the day after the post office was established and the town had received its name. For a nominal fee, residents now could obtain deeds to their lots.

Hard as it is to understand, the town remained an unincorporated area of Gila County another 43 years before the town had grown enough for public interest to insist on creating Payson’s own government.

The old culture of ranches and cowboys was rapidly being absorbed by a tourist and recreation culture. Newcomers were taking over the operation of necessary services, and pioneer families had become a minority.

At their Nov. 5 meeting in 1973 the county board of supervisors received a petition for incorporation from 729 real property holders in Payson for permission to incorporate the town. Permission was granted, and in December 1973 the Town of Payson was incorporated with a common council form of government.

Payson had yet to “come of age,” and many exciting and interesting events lay immediately ahead.


1) Archives of Tonto National Forest

2) “A Historic Resource Survey Of Payson Arizona” By Don Ryden et al, for the town of Payson, June 1991

3) “An Overview of the Payson Basin Geographic Study Area” by Deborah Dosh and Duane Klinner, Northland Research Inc. Flagstaff, June 1993.

4) Archives of Rim Country Museum, Payson

1 Extensive correspondence throughout 1908 to 1911, in the files of the Tonto National Forest. Packet titled “Looking To Legalize the Payson Townsite.”

2 An original petition can be seen in the Rim Country Museum, signed by town leaders of the time: George Randall, Mart McDonald, E. S. Tompkins, B. F. Stewart, F. N. Powers, O. S. Barkdoll, James Gallagher, August Pieper, W. H. Hilligas, William Colcord, C. M. Brown and C. E. Gibson.


Pat Randall 7 years, 1 month ago

If Mr. Brown cannot spell my grandfather's name right after being told by me at least 10 times how can I believe anything he writes? It is Hilligass not Hilligas the way he insists it should be spelled.


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