When Grady Harrison was born Aug. 25, 1891 no one could have guessed he would be the first to bring supplies to Payson in a motorized vehicle. It was 1918, and this enterprising citizen was 27 years old when he began hauling freight from Globe to Payson, ending decades of isolation when the only deliveries were made by pack trains of mules or horses.
Reaching Payson had always been a most difficult accomplishment. When families began arriving from the north to settle under the Rim in the 1870s, they had to negotiate the 2,000-foot drop. The earliest arrivals camped at Bakers Butte and searched for a place of descent, choosing a gentler slope into Strawberry Valley. They widened the faint Indian trail, dragged large pine logs behind their wagons as brakes, and finally entered the valley below.
Soon after1880 the L. P. Nash family made their home at the base of this descent, and it came to be called Nash Point.
A better way over the Rim was found in 1883 when the Rile Allen family established a dairy farm above Pine calling it Milk Ranch Point. They provided dairy products to the crews laying track for the Mineral Belt Railroad coming through the forest from Flagstaff. This new trail up Strawberry Canyon, a quarter-mile south of Strawberry, served until it was replaced in 1924 by the road through Fossil Creek, and then in 1937 State Route 87 replaced the “old Strawberry grade” with the present ascent above Strawberry.
Meanwhile the only trail from Phoenix and Mesa followed the old military road across the Mazatzals, and pack mules brought supplies to Payson that way in winter. In summer months the mule trains came over the Rim from Flagstaff.
Just after the turn of the century the building of Roosevelt Dam called for a road through the Superstition Mountains. They named it the Apache Trail. This provided a new and easier route from the Valley of the Sun. Local Native Americans were employed to build that road as well as a road from Roosevelt up the Tonto Basin to Payson. This enabled motorized traffic from Globe as well as Phoenix.
Enter Grady Harrison with his truck. Now Payson could be connected with Phoenix, as well as with the Verde Valley by way of the Fossil Creek Road. Payson’s supplies now came in a much quicker and more efficient way.
Grady Harrison started by operating a one-ton Commerce truck and soon began to expand his freight business to a fleet of trucks with hired drivers. His garage on Main Street in Payson, where these marvelous vehicles were serviced, was a place of interest and congregating for ranchers and town folks. By 1934 he was driving a Dodge tractor pulling an 18-foot trailer.
That year Grady’s 12-year-old son Audrey began to ride with him, and other drivers on occasion. The lad’s role was that of “swamper,” the traditional name for a truck driver’s assistant. He ran the errands and kept the driver awake, helped load and unload, and learned how to maintain the truck.
In between runs he enjoyed collecting the clay that came off the truck tires and made pottery objects with it. It was the beginning of a life-long hobby.
One of Payson’s oft-told stories, from the lips of Audrey Harrison, is about the time when he was a 12-year-old, riding over the Apache Trail with driver Leonard Hart. He said he thought it strange they stopped every 30 minutes “to check the load,” but after some hours Audrey discovered the driver had “a bottle of hooch” hidden in the load. He was stopping that often to take a drink. By the time they got to the top of Fish Creek Hill on the Apache Trail, Hart said he was going to stop for a nap. He pulled over and promptly passed out.
Fish Hill on the Apache Trail was a tortuous mile long drop of 900 feet. The uncertain gravel road made a plunge off the side a possibility throughout the descent. The sheer rock walls tower nearly 2,000 feet above the traveler, and even today the narrow switchbacks down the hill make it difficult for campers and trailers. Recreational vehicles over 40 feet are prohibited.
The young swamper, Audrey Harrison, smelled the alcohol on his driver’s breath, and sized up the situation. “I wasn’t going to sit there until he sobered up,” reported Harrison in more recent years. “It was hot!”
The 12-year-old boy, strong and large for his age, went around to the driver’s side and pushed the unconscious man into the passenger seat. Putting the truck into its lowest gear Audrey eased the big rig down Fish Creek Hill, and by the time he got to Roosevelt Lake he was handling all three gear shifts, one four speed, a second three speed, and a third (rear end) two speed. He said years later, “By the time I got to Payson I could shuffle all three sticks and never did scrape a gear.”
The young truck driver arrived at his home on Frontier Street in Payson about 2 a.m. and backed the truck into the driveway. The driver Hart had awakened and asked to be let out down in town. He knew enough never to return for his paycheck.
It had been a 16-hour trip from Phoenix, and the boy collapsed for the rest of the night. In the morning, Grady was not mad at his son. Instead he said, “Well, I guess you can drive it then.”
The truck had been carrying 18 tons of mining machinery, and Audrey was sent to deliver it to the Summit Mine. After it was unloaded the lad returned home about 2 p.m. He was immediately sent out by his dad to Henry Haught’s sawmill in the forest to load up 4,000 board feet of green lumber.
When he returned from that assignment, Grady said to his son, “You might as well go gas up your truck.”
In an oral interview Audrey Harrison continued the story, “So I gassed it up and checked the oil and everything. And dad says, `In the morning I want you to take that load of lumber to a lumberyard there in Phoenix. They’ll pay you cash for it, and then I want you to go out to Buckeye and get a load of hay, wherever you can find it.’”
It was done as the father ordered, though the youngster had to stop often with that big load for gas, oil and water. Audrey’s returning stops were made at Apache Junction, Tortilla Flat, Roosevelt, Tonto Basin, Felton’s Store (today called Jake’s Corner), and Polly Brown’s store in Rye. It took an hour-and-a-half to get up Ox Bow Hill from Rye and return to Payson. “I got paid 50 cents and hour, and I was a rich man.”
By the time this budding entrepreneur was 15 his dad had him driving to Clarkdale for Payson’s supply of diesel fuel and gasoline. The route took him over the Fossil Creek Road in a 1934 five-ton rated Dodge truck. He enjoyed telling about that trip as well.
“I’d leave here in the morning with 48 empty barrels on it, double deck, go over Fossil Creek, go into Clarkdale, unload them, and fill them with gasoline or whatever it was I was supposed to get, load them back on the truck and come back to Payson. I’d unload them, load up the empties, and then I’d go back the next day. One day I’d go for Shell, next for Mobil, next for Chevron, next one was something else. But all the gasoline come out of the same faucet. Everybody said theirs was better than anybody else.” (1)
With the entrance of the U.S. into World War II, Audrey enlisted in the Navy, and was probably the most muscular man they had on the ship.
The year 1918 was the year that Payson’s contact with the outside world became motorized, and supplies began to come over the mountain in a volume that enabled further growth for the town. But other things were also happening that year that would impact the town’s future story.
(1) The source of Audrey Harrison’s story is a taped interview with him in his home, by Stan Brown on April 11, 1998.