The Story Of Payson, Arizona

Chapter 16: a school is built in Payson



Photo courtesy of Rim Country Museum files

This is the original Payson school; the structure on the right is the first building erected, it went up in 1901.

Grade school classes were held in Payson 11 years before there was a dedicated schoolhouse. The town’s first official school term was held in 1890 in a house near the Lone Pine Hotel which had been remodeled for the purpose. Like most buildings in Payson it was made of rough board, unpainted inside and out. Grades 1 through 8 had around 25 students enrolled.

The first teacher was Henry Q. Robertson, who was remembered by his former students as being cranky and mean. However, H. Q. became a fixture in Payson, making the town his home, and after his stint at teaching he was called back several times to fill in the school year for other teachers who had dropped out or been dismissed.

Harry Nash taught for a short time; Miss Homesley taught the school year 1896-97, followed by Julia Nickols (1897-98), and H. Q. Robertson was back for the year 1898-99.

The salary had been $65 a month, twice that of a cowboy, but H. Q. demanded and received $85 a month. After all, he reminded the school board, he was a man.

The school year was short by today’s standards, running six months from October through March. Sometimes it was extended through April if winter snows had caused too much classroom time to be lost. The rest of the year students were needed to help with the roundups and harvests, or pitch in for the family’s business.

By the turn of the century, in 1900, the number of children had outgrown the house that served as a school. Attendance had grown to 41 pupils because many came in from the ranches to live with relatives or friends in town during the school year.

The school board met to plan the first actual school building in Payson, and by October 1901 it was in place on Main Street. The men of the community erected the one room school on land donated where today’s Presbyterian Church and its parking lot are located.

Among the 41 students, there were only 16 surnames, and they were aged 6 to 19 years. For example, seven carried the Chilson name, five were named Stewart, and four each represented the Shirley and Lockwood families.

The building was difficult to heat because of its high ceilings and numerous cracks, loose windows and holes in the floor. Water was drawn from a hand-dug well, and poured into a holder on the table inside the large room.

The wastewater drained through a tube under the table, and froze on cold winter days. The stove was in the center of the room, and pupils gathered around it for their studies.

By 1916 there were 51 pupils, more than one teacher could handle. A second, similar building was built to the east of the first one, and two teachers were hired.

It was in 1916 that high school courses were added to the curriculum. Until that time students had to go to Flagstaff, Globe or Tempe for high school, boarding with relatives or friends in the larger communities.

By 1920 enough high school subjects were being given to allow the 16 credits needed for graduation, but Payson’s high school was not accredited. Those who went on to college had to take make-up courses before being fully enrolled.

Town folk had many stories to tell about those early days in Payson’s school. Nurse Theresa Boardman related the following in an interview with school superintendent Ira Murphy.

“You know that spoiled boy Lee Barkdoll. He was goin’ out the window; went out three times. The teacher (Mr. Crawford) told him that if he went out once more, he would get a lickin’. Lee went out once more, so Crawford whipped him. The teacher had a room up at Callaghan’s house. The boy went home and told his mother, Renee, and she got on that horse. I can still see her with her divided khaki skirt. She was making the rounds with a petition to have the teacher put out when they finally caught up with her to tell her. I think it was at the end of town. Would you believe, the teacher had dropped dead in the classroom while she was out on that horse.”

The late Marguerite Noble, who was raised in the Tonto Basin School, told other stories.

Her little brother had an injury to his head that had not healed, and he was feeling poorly. The teacher’s method of punishing boys was to pull their hair, and he approached Marguerite’s brother who was displaying a lack of attention. Grabbing a hank of his hair and jerking upwards, the hair and the scab of the boy’s wound came off in the teacher’s hand, making the injury bleed. Their older sister rose up to her full height, wrapped her brother’s head in a cloth and defiantly led him out of the classroom for home. Upon learning of the incident, their father saddled his horse and rode off to encounter the teacher, who then left the country without further ado. School was discontinued until a new teacher could be found.

Teachers seldom stayed more than one term. Marguerite Noble said, “The loneliness and lack of stimulation were more than they could accept. Poor Miss Paxton struggled with the barrenness for one term and she left. Mr. Firth came next, gentle and understanding, and gave us a year of kindness. Then he went to the big city, and we grieved at his loss. His place was taken by a gaunt, tall man who seemed to take teaching as a punishment for himself and the pupils. His lined face was graven like the grinding stone we had found in the Indian ruins.”

In Lower Tonto, at Roosevelt, Lillian Johnson came to teach in 1916. To get there she had to drive her buggy and a stubborn horse from the Valley over the newly built Apache Trail. It took three days on the road, camping in the rain, and making a fire between rainstorms to dry her clothes.

In November 1901, the year that Payson’s first official school building was erected on Main Street, a little girl named Julia Viola Randall came from Denver to live on the East Verde River with her mother and half sister CeCe. Julia had turned 2 years old the previous Aug. 9, and her father, George Albert Randall, had come the year before to take the position of superintendent of the Grand Prize Mine on Webber Creek.[1]

In 1906 she moved with her family into Payson, where Julia’s mother, Rose, purchased the McDonalald Saloon and mercantile store, and the family lived there until George could build them a home just north of Main Street on the old Pine Road (north McLane).[2]

Julia’s father was the justice of the peace from 1908 to 1918, the town’s notary public, and conducted its funerals and weddings.

Julia Randall had a lovely voice and desired to become a professional singer. She said, “My parents encouraged me to stay away from it because they thought I should get into something more stable, something I could make a living at those days.”[3]

It seemed natural for Julia to become a teacher. Her mother had been a teacher, and May Herron, a close friend, influenced Julia to choose that vocation.

At the age of 15, Julia had completed the schooling Payson could offer, and went to Flagstaff to enter Normal School (later this became Northern Arizona University). Her mother accompanied her on the wagon trip, but while they were there word came from Payson that George Randall had suffered a stroke. It left him crippled for the remaining six years of his life. 

In 1916 Julia graduated with a two-year certificate, and the 17-year-old girl became the teacher at the Starr Valley School. During her tenure there, she lived at the Andrew Ogilvie home.

“They gave me a little white horse that I rode home to Payson every weekend … He’d stand still while I picked grapes along the way,” Randall related.

Anna Mae Ogilvie Deming recalled the horse had “the revolting name of Goo-Goo.”

Julia’s second year of teaching was in Pine, and then she accepted an appointment to teach in the Payson school. How she became the town’s most beloved teacher will have to wait for another chapter.

[1] See Chapter 15 for information about the Grand Prize Mine.

[2] The Randall’s building on Main Street originally stood east of today’s Oxbow Inn. The building was later removed to become an addition to the Payson Womans Club, and that club building was later moved by the Connally family to the south side of Main Street when the women began their new building, that would later house the first Payson library. That historic building stands today behind the stores built by the Connallys.

[3] Spoken in an interview with student Diane Palm for a social studies report, February 1986.


Tim Barrett 7 years, 10 months ago

Yet another interesting story! Even when I attended school in the valley, I always loved Arizona history. Many thanks to great pioneers like Mr. Eddie Scales, and teachers like Mr. George Penman, a native of Gila County, and the many others made history come alive. Thanks again Mr. Brown.


Requires free registration

Posting comments requires a free account and verification.