Keeping the frontier spirit alive in the Rim Country has been the mission of the Gila County Pioneers Committee since it was formed in 2006.
“We don’t want people to forget what those who helped found this land went through,” said Roy Haught.
“We want to keep alive the rugged Western culture, remember those who came before us and what they did.
The committee, whose 10 members all hail from Payson pioneer families, was founded after the Tonto Cowbelles turned inactive several years ago.
For decades, the Cowbelles spearheaded dances, dinners, benefits and celebrations around Northern Gila County.
“I remember going to them as a kid,” said Ronnie McDaniel, a committee member who once served as a local deputy sheriff and Payson Justice of the Peace. “They were a lot of fun.”
The Pioneers, who meet regularly in Haught’s Star Valley home, decided three years ago they would host a Cowbelle-like celebration each fall with the profits going to worthwhile organizations linked to the Rim Country’s heritage.
Early on, careful plans were laid to ensure the gala evenings were much like those held decades ago.
“We wanted it to be like what the Cowbelles used to do,” McDaniel said.
On the agenda are quilt raffles, deep-pit cooked beef and beans cowboy dinners, country-western music and the always-popular cake and dessert auctions.
Founders decided to host the honorary dinner and dance on the last Saturday in September and invite most all those who played a role in Rim Country history.
In the three years the events have been held, some of those who have been honored at the dinner include Austin Haught, Pat Cline, Charlie Brunson, Jimmy Brown and Suart Jones.
The entertainment has been supplied by musicians with a rich, Payson heritage of their own, including Eddie Armer, Don Gibson, Mary Little, Taylor Hale and Angela Godac.
“You see some of the old-timers do the waltz,” said Pioneer Committee member Duke Wilbanks.
The first dinner and dance was an overwhelming success, earning $16,000. They also provided newcomers and Johnny-come-lately a glimpse of what life was like decades ago in Payson.
The money was donated to the struggling Payson High FFA program.
“We decided on it because of FFA’s link to ranching and rural life,” Haught said.
Since the inaugural dinner and dance, the benefits have turned even more festive and lucrative, partly because the Mazatzal Hotel and Casino has begun donating.
This year, $2,000 was donated to Tonto Basin schools, $5,000 to Young FFA programs, and money for two scholarships will soon be going to students from PHS teacher Richard Alvarez’s industrial arts classes.
In a thank-you letter from Young, students wrote that some of the money was used to send students to state FFA leadership camps — fees that normally had to be footed by parents.
Also, FFA affiliation fees were paid, awards for outstanding students were purchased, student fees to mini camps were paid, and up to six members will be going to the 2009 National FFA Convention. No Young student has attended it in the past six years.
“Words just don’t say enough for you to have given my students that opportunity,” FFA advisor Sue Wade wrote.
With the committee now running at full speed, with three years of expertise, Haught is predicting next fall’s event will be the biggest and best ever, especially since three whole beefs have been donated as raffle prizes, and word of the history-making evenings has spread around the state.