Irene Neal competed in every Payson Loggers Sawdust Festival from 1980 until the event was discontinued after the 1993 event. Every one of those 13 years, she won the rolling pin throwing contest and still holds the record for the distance toss of 113 feet.
Rolling pin throwing was not her only event. She participated in every event in pursuit of the Lady Logger of the Year title. The events included cutting and stacking with a chain saw; crosscut saw; Jill and Jill crosscut saw; Jack and Jill crosscut saw; power saw bucking; ax throw; and log burling (rolling a log with your feet in a pool of water). For extra points toward the title, Neal also took part in the cigar smoking firefighter contest.
She won the coveted Lady Logger of Year title in 1982 and again in 1983. The win in 1983 is her most prized, that same year, her husband Bill won the Logger of the Year title.
Irene and Bill were married in 1979. At the time he was a logger and he brought her along to the first festival.
“When I heard what they were doing, I decided I could do it and signed up,” she said.
“She was up for it and then she started winning,” Bill said.
It was something fun they could do together as a couple, and when their daughters came along, they were involved in the children’s events as well.
While Bill is helping organize the revival of the Sawdust Festival, Irene is staying out of the thick of getting things going again. Instead, she is getting in condition and practicing to be a competitor.
“I’m excited about seeing if I can still do it,” she said.
The revived Payson Loggers Sawdust Festival is May 23 and May 24 at the Payson Event Center, with competition starting at 10 a.m.
One of the Neals’ daughters is helping coordinate the children’s events, and Irene is trying to talk their other daughter and some of her nieces into competing.
“We have a huge family here,” she said.
“Twenty-four nieces and nephews,” Bill added.
“Some of them are helping put on the events,” he said.
There were always a lot of fun things to do in the Sawdust Festival — things to do as couples, things to do as individuals, things for the children and things for the family.
“It will be a great family event,” Bill said.
Audience members might even get pulled into the arena to help in some of the contests, so be sure to wear jeans, T-shirts and sturdy shoes. You will not be able to wear shorts in the arena, Bill said.
Safety equipment for competitors in the chain saw events is provided by and required by Stihl, which is furnishing the power equipment. Contestants in the chain saw events must wear chaps, gloves and goggles.
In fact, all equipment will be provided for the contests, so aspiring loggers can just walk into the arena. Competitors can bring their own equipment as well.
There will be cash awards, plus honors for the Logger and Lady Loggers of the Year and the Arizona Logger and Lady Logger of the Year, Bill said.
“Don’t be spooked (about using chain saws),” Irene said, encouraging other women in the Rim Country to come out and compete.
Lumbermen and pro logging competitors from around the country are interested in the return of the Payson Sawdust Festival. There will plenty of opportunities for amateurs to take a shot at the prize money, too.
Bill shared some of the events that amateurs might enjoy.
• The log toss — participants get three tries at tossing a 10-foot long log, between 5 and 7 inches in diameter. The win goes to the individual who tosses the log the greatest distance.
• The log roll — participants use only a cant hook to move a log 20 feet and place it between two posts 16 feet apart, with both ends touching a post, neither feet or hands can touch the log.
• The ax throw — toss an ax at a target (30 feet for men, 20 feet for women); score is cumulative after three throws, with the win going to the person with the highest score.
• The rolling pin throw — score is based on distance and accuracy; participants get three tries.
• Greased pole climbing — an 18-foot pole, greased with lard, must be climbed using a three-person team; the win is based on speed.
• Cigar smoking firefighting — participants are given a 5-gallon bladder of water with a pull nozzle and a lighted cigar, then stationed in a 20-foot ring. The object is to put out everyone else’s cigar, while keeping yours lit. The winner is the last standing with a lit cigar.
Children will also have the opportunity to get in the arena for some fun.
Among the contests planned for youngsters: are nail driving (a speed event), pine cone throw (a distance event), a log toss for boys and a rolling pin throw for girls; and log stacking.
There will also be a chance for different age groups to scramble through a sawdust pile in search of up to $100 in silver coins.
The events for the children will be in a special area in the arena with good views from the stands for their friends and family.
Children competing must be checked into and out of the arena by a parent or responsible adult.
To register to participate, those interested can go to the Web site paysonrimcountry.com and click on the Sawdust Festival site and print both the registration form and the insurance waiver. Entries need to be taken to the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce office at the corner of West Main and Beeline or the Payson Parks, Recreation and Tourism office in Green Valley Park.
It is recommended entrants also attend one of two meetings held prior to the opening of the Sawdust Festival, one will be Friday evening, May 22, the other will be early Saturday morning, May 23, both will be held at the Payson Event Center.
Irene said she is impressed with the way the town and chamber are working together to get the event going again.
Bill said there is a tremendous amount of support from the community as well.