Landmark Hotel On Main

The Story of Payson, Arizona - Chapter 33: Landmark Hotel On Main Street

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Photo courtesy of Rim Country Museum files

  The “modern” Ox Bow on Main Street Payson after expansion.

The rowdy and salty character of old Payson still lingers on Main Street in the façade of the Ox Bow Inn and Saloon. It was on these historic properties that the pageant of cow town living was enacted, including shoot-outs, horse races and rodeos performed between the rows of log and clapboard buildings.

The story of this famous hotel-saloon began in 1932 when William and Estelee Wade began construction of the Payson Hotel east of the community dance center known as Packard Hall. They picked a site that had already seen years of rootin’, tootin’, shootin’ cowboy life and death. This had been the location of the old 16-to-1 Saloon, a center for local conviviality and frequent violence.[1] A well dug just in front of the 16-to-1 along Main Street had been filled in, waiting for some future archeologist to retrieve all the artifacts tossed in over the years. The Payson Hotel was at the center of Main Street’s business and social activities, halfway between the old Globe Road coming from the south and the old Pine Road heading to the north.

“Willie” Wade brought experience in building structures of logs, having worked at that trade in Yellowstone Park. Since a supply of logs was close by, the Wades decided to cut and haul the needed logs from the Mogollon Rim.  The rest of the material had to be brought in from Phoenix by way of the Apache Trail and Roosevelt Dam.  The usual procedure for obtaining lumber in Payson was to cut logs from the surrounding forests into rough lumber by mobile sawmills. That lumber would then be hauled into town. To bring large whole logs into town was unusual enough to cause much admiration.

The hotel had nine rooms upstairs, with the kitchen, restaurant and bar downstairs. Since Prohibition was over the end of 1933 liquor licenses had become available to establishments that also served food.  The Wades charged $2.50 a night for a room and the meals were 50 cents.  Inside, dividing the dining room from the bar, a large flagstone fireplace was built by well-known rancher Richard Taylor. During the time the Wades built and operated their hotel and bar the annual August Rodeo took place on the road in front.

In 1945 the Wades retired from the hotel business, and the new owner was Jimmy Cox. He immediately began expanding the property by building nine new rooms in an L-shape behind the lodge, with a swimming pool in the center of the patio. Servicemen and women were returning and Payson experienced boom-times. A dining room was included, and the original hotel rooms upstairs were eliminated in favor of a large room that could be used for receptions and community dances. Cox also renamed the complex “The Ox Bow Inn.”[2]

The name Oxbow originated during the Indian Wars, when in June of 1871 a detachment of soldiers climbed the hill toward Green Valley seeking out Apache camps. Army Scout Charles B. Genung accompanied them.[3] Along the trail they came upon several ox yokes, apparently left by Indians who had raided a wagon making its way in the vicinity. The Indians probably slaughtered and ate the oxen, leaving the yokes. The soldiers dubbed the place Ox Yoke Mountain.

In 1878 William St. John came to the area and along with good friends Al Sieber and Sam Hill located a mine he named the Ox Bow Mine. Soon the approach to Payson up the steep hill was dubbed Oxbow Hill.

In 1953 new owners Bob and Thelma Caldwell took over the establishment. They expanded the building by purchasing Alf Randall’s auto and appliance store next door west, which they remodeled for a saloon. Siding covered the original logs of the Payson Hotel, and the new façade was created to reflect Payson’s cowboy era.   While many buildings on Main Street were originally rough lumber or log, later buildings took on the board-and-batten with stone construction, denoting a move from pioneer years to ranching times.

An announcement in The Payson Roundup April 4, 1954 proclaimed the new era for the Ox Bow, “There will be a grand opening of the Ox Bow Lodge, Sunday May 2nd at 1:30 PM Free barbeque, served in the patio by the swimming pool. Everybody cordially invited.”

In August 1966, the Caldwells sold the property.  Because of outdated wiring and new building codes the successive owners were unable to remain open very long, and a series of sad attempts was made. From 1972 to1977 Bill and Bobbie Banbury were the owners.  Their son Dave wrote the Roundup in 2005 his reminiscence of the historic place. “Our family lived in the hotel, worked in the restaurant and bar. It was a family business. My childhood there was Huck Finn-like.  I was about 11 years old… and probably saw and experienced more than a child should have at that age, being next to bar and all.  But I also learned a lot about people, work and life… I will always cherish the memories of the Ox Bow.”

After that the Ox Bow stood forlornly empty as none of the subsequent owners could afford to meet the building codes and outdated wiring. It was during this period, February 6, 1982, that a drunken patron of the Ox Bow stumbled out and over into the parking lot of the adjoining Winchester Saloon, where he shot and killed John Greenleaf, owner of the Winchester. It was a tragic reminder of wilder days in Payson.

By 1990 Payson population had reached 8,377, and in March 1991 Bill Mead took over the saloon and its liquor license. Bob Momcilovic operated the bar under a lease-purchase agreement with Mead until 1995. However, during this time he received several fines for breaking the rules, and Mead had operated without a business license since 1991 because of building code violations. The town had gone along with him hoping he would fix things. However, in February 1996 the Arizona Department of Liquor License and Control denied Momcilovic’s request to assume the license from Mead, and when Mead’s license expired in October 1996 he closed the Ox Bow. He stated that it “will remain closed until someone else buys it.”

In 1997 it was purchased by Michelle Monti of the Tempe restaurateurs.  She tried to take it slow and tone down the old rowdy reputation.  She noted at the time what disrepair the building was in, needing new plumbing and wiring, saying, “The wiring is a fire trap.”  She tried to do it one room at a time, and readied her restaurant for the public by the spring of 1999. However, in October 1999 the state canceled her temporary liquor license.

In the spring of 2000, new owner/developer Craig W. Norman planned to bring in someone who would devote the effort required to make the enterprise go. He himself was too near retirement, he said, to do it himself. He saw the project as going hand in hand with the development of Main Street as a tourist attraction.  He commented, “I understand from the police calls there have been some problems there. My organization does not allow that sort of thing. We just want a good business, a good steady clientele that doesn’t create problems.”

However, a few months after Norman reopened the saloon in June, visiting state liquor control agents witnessed a bar brawl, as well as a number of alcohol and health violations. Norman’s application for a liquor license was rejected, and the Ox Bow was out of business again.

In March of 2002 an effort to document its history by Main Street enthusiasts brought notification that the Ox Bow Inn was eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.  This was affirmation of the importance attached to this landmark on Payson’s Main Street, and encouraged new buyers. Soon after that, the property was purchased by Roy and Beverly Nethken. They announced plans to renovate and reopen the saloon, a Texas-style barbecue restaurant and seven gift shops in the courtyard area.  Given the checkered history of the Ox Bow, Beverly Nethken’s dream may have been doomed from the start. In the Payson Roundup July 11, 2002 she stated her ideals, “In fact, I’m not a person who goes to bars. I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, and I’m hoping my moral standards will keep the atmosphere tame.  I’ve heard nightmares about this building‘s past and I don’t want to be part of that nightmare.  I want to run this establishment as if it was my house. Only one law here at the Ox Bow. We welcome all, except the ones who like to brawl.  I will not allow anyone to cuss before me.  I’m not in this for the money. I’m in this to create a nice place for people to go. We’re not going to be open on Sundays because I think people should go to church on Sundays. I’m going to be strict. I’m going to have a dress code after 7 PM…”

The Nethkens planned to fashion the saloon as a sports bar. “Karaoke, and special programs like the Country Music Awards show…” Their dream did

not materialize and in December 2005 a corporation became the new owners. Margo Stavroplos came from one of their other bars to manage the Ox Bow. Improvements were again planned.

The mythology of western Americana is reflected in the architecture and ambiance of the Ox Bow and it became a landmark for Payson. Over the years the historic significance of this fine facility attracted many owners. Anyone with imagination could see the possibilities for renewing this Main Street attraction. However the costs of bringing it up to code and the shadow of liquor license violations defeated those dreams. Now the Ox Bow is again for sale and hope abounds for a better future.

[1] See The Payson Story, chapter 9

[2] The name is variously spelled. The Oxbow Hill and Oxbow Mine make it one word. The Saloon traditionally spelled it as two words, Ox Bow.

[3] A description of the encounter with Apaches on Ox Yoke Mountain is in the book by Charles Baldwin Genung “Death In His Saddlebags,” Sunflower University Press, 1992, pg. 95.

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