The turning of the new century caused the hearts of settlers in the Payson area to swell with hope and enthusiasm for the years just ahead. In 1900 there was a sense of standing on the threshold of progress. New babies were born, an election was held and great changes were in the wind. Over on the San Carlos Indian Reservation the military rule relaxed its grip on the Tonto Apaches, who now were returning to the places of their family origins.
Traditional campsites around Payson included the East Verde River all the way from Webber Creek down through today’s East Verde Estates. The hill overlooking Main Street that the settlers would call Indian Hill was another traditional home, as well as places along Rye Creek. Upon returning, however, the Apaches found that white invaders had occupied their hunting and camping grounds. A reasonable arrangement was reached between the two groups when the peaceful Tontos found work as woodcutters, laundresses and ranch hands among the settlers. Soon they would become the primary work force in constructing new roads.
Some of the Payson area’s solid citizens were putting their roots deep as the year 1900 come upon them. Out near the crossing of the East Verde, John and Sydney Holder accumulated large flocks of Angora goats, hauling the much sought after wool to market in Globe. There was rejoicing when both of their wives delivered babies in July of 1900.
Sydney’s 28-year-old wife Carrie was on time giving birth but the following November both mother and child died of typhoid. Their graves, enclosed by a white picket fence, have been maintained ever since along Sycamore Creek and are seen from Highway 87 on the way to Pine.
John and Sarah Holder’s baby was born July 2, 1900, and named Sarah Mae. She would grow up and marry Walter Haught, and become the mother of Pat who became Mrs. Raymond Cline. Although Walter Haught and Mae Holder were born within six days of each other, and 15 miles apart, these two babies of the new century would not meet until they were 18.
Over on Webber Creek pioneer William Craig had discovered the Grand Prize Mine and it had developed to the point of needing a superintendent. In 1900 he hired a fellow from Denver named George A. Randall to supervise the mine and build a smelter at the East Verde crossing where the road to the Verde Valley passed by. The ore was brought down from the mine, and today one can find evidence of slag from the smelter on the upstream side of the modern bridge.
Randall set up a mining camp on a flat near the mouth of Sycamore Creek. That creek flows into the East Verde just down stream from the modern bridge. It would have been hard to predict in 1900 that George Randall would become Payson’s famous Justice of the Peace, and his daughter would be the town’s famous schoolteacher. But those stories will come later.
Out at the Ellison’s Apple Farm on Ellison Creek a young politician from Globe was courting a cowgirl named Duett. The new century held untold adventures for the couple, who would be married in 1904 and in 1912 Duett Ellison’s husband, George W. P. Hunt would be elected the first governor for the new state of Arizona.
Also in 1900 a New York dentist was deciding that life held more for him than open mouths. He wanted to hunt in the western wilderness and become a writer. Four years into the new century Zane Grey would privately print his first novel, and by 1918 he would come to Payson on his way to Tonto Creek, where his presence would turn a corner for Rim Country history and the future of Payson.
Down on Rye Creek, Sam Haught II was putting behind him the grief of losing four children to diphtheria. He could not know that his wife Dagmar would soon divorce him, and together with his second wife they would contribute children who made a deep mark on the life of Payson and the Rim Country. Nor could he foresee that five years after the turn of then century he would be elected to the Territorial Legislature.
Out on the headwaters of Webber Creek, where the Geronimo Boy Scout Camp is today, young John Henry Thompson, called “Rim Rock Henry” because of his location under the Rim, was still smarting from an 1896 defeat in his run for sheriff of Gila County. He could not foresee that he would be elected to that office in 1906 and would serve as a territorial sheriff longer than anyone else in U. S. history. His face was to become familiar on the streets of Payson.
In 1900 the population along the creeks and canyons under the Rim had produced enough children to warrant a school. That year the Rim Rock School was established at the mouth of Dude Creek. There were 16 children enrolled from the Merritt, Belluzzi, Hendershott, Herron, Powers and Pyle families. It would operate for the next seven years, and was often referred to in pioneer reminiscences as the location for wonderful Saturday night dances.
By 1900 Payson had become less of a mining center and more of a ranching center. Cattle, sheep and goats were thriving throughout the Rim Country and Tonto Basin, making Payson the supply center for ranching families. At the foot of Oxbow Hill, on the H-Bar Ranch, Sam Haught had 10,000 head of cattle and 1,000 brood mares. Folks were calling him a “cattle baron.” At the turn of the century cattle ranching had peaked, there being 20 times more cattle than there would be 100 years later.
By June and July when the tall grasses had died, and before the monsoon arrived, the cowboys followed practices they learned from the Indians, burning the countryside. Rancher Slim Ellison told of watching the Apaches tie a burning tree branch to a horse’s tail and send it across the countryside and through the forests to light the ground cover. They counted on the July rains to put the fires out, and in the process prepared the ground for fresh new grass. It also kept the forests pruned.
Early military detachments during the Indian War reported a “park like” appearance to the ponderosa forests. The huge trees had open spaces between them where grasses and wildflowers flourished. With the ground fuel consumed annually, lightening caused fires had no opportunity to climb into the crowns of the trees.
By 1900 overgrazing had set the stage for vast changes in the life of Payson area people. So many sheep and cattle had been added they exhausted the supply of tall grasses and encouraged the growth of chaparral and brush. A few years later an 18-month drought drove many ranchers out of business.
The problems caused by overgrazing created a demand for controls, and in 1905 the National Forest Service was formed to establish grazing allotments and limit the number of animals ranchers could raise. The Forest Service also instituted a policy of putting out fires to protect the increasing human population that was spreading over the land. Thus at the beginning of a new century the die was cast for future destructive forest fires.
Later cowboy Slim Ellison would write retired Forest Ranger Fred Croxen, “If you hadn’t over-protected so long (the forest) wouldn’t need (help) now. How did that big forest grow from the Grand Canyon over to New Mexico without you Smokey Bears herdin’ it? My granddad (Jesse Ellison) kept the juniper down by fire. Now look at it. It’s got all the open country covered and grass gone.”
1900 was also an election year, in which Republican William McKinley won the presidency over William Jennings Bryan. Only a small percentage of the 150 people living in the hamlet of Payson were registered, and most of them were Democrat. Only men could vote, and there was a poll tax, so numbers of registered voters were destined to be small. Election officers supervising the polls and counting the votes in Payson carried the familiar names of prominent town folk: W. C. Colcord, B. F. Stewart, J. W. Wentworth, John Chilson, W. H. Hilligass and Robert Hill.
In a article about this 1900 election, historian Tim Ehrhardt found this tidbit in the Payson news columns of the Arizona Silver Belt, November 22, 1900, “Since the election is over, quite a number of our worthy citizens have gone out into the mountains hunting, while others have pulled out to do annual assessment work, so that at this writing the town is practically dead as to legitimate business, and is partially in the hands of a few idle gossipers, who certainly do not fail to grasp an opportunity to ‘burn’ their neighbors, regardless of results. Gossiping or libel has become almost a chronic mania in Payson and other parts of the Basin, much to the discredit of those engaged in such.”
The topics for gossip would only increase in the following years. The turn of century in Payson was a landmark moment in the history of the town. From then on the cowboy image of Payson would fade as the ranching industry receded and the local residents became more sophisticated. However, that transition would be slow and many “Wild West cowboy and Indian events” would yet take place on Main Street.
 The Rim Review, Sept. 11, 2008