New Sawdust Festival Has Everything — Except Crowds

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Andy Towle/Roundup - atowle@payson.com

Looking for quarters in sawdust was child’s play. Brooke O’Donnell (left) was particular about where she dug, but Kayla Kline wasn’t and found the big prize and not just a few silver coins.

The new, improved and resurrected Sawdust Festival had just about everything — beautiful women with chain saws, hilarious greased pole climbs, strong women with rolling pins, mud-spattered ATV riders, tree-climbers, ax throwers, brat cookers, $12,000 in prize money — and even a whiff of controversy.

Yep — the loggers festival had just about everything.

Everything, that is, except folks in the bleachers.

Alas, only about 1,000 of the people crowding the highway on Memorial Day weekend dropped by the Payson Event Center to buy an $8 ticket for the two-day, tribute to the now largely vanished Rim Country logging industry.

Intermittent rain, competition from other events, a limited advertising budget and the lingering economic strain all conspired to dampen attendance at the festival, revived this year after a 16-year hiatus.

Still, the 43 contestants from throughout the West did some amazing things with chain saws, while the 17 vendors and 20 sponsoring businesses plied the low-key, family-oriented audience.

Rain on Friday and Saturday turned the open-air rodeo grounds into something of a bog, with contestants clomping from event to event with big gobs of Rim Country earth stuck to their boots.

The mud made the ATV race a spattered spectacle.

Even so, the ATVs could not compete with the entertainment value of watching three-person teams form wobbly totem poles in an attempt to ring a bell dangling from the top of a greased log set into the ground.

“We saved the greased pole climb for last — that’s what they stay for,” said Tourism, Parks and Recreation Director Cameron Davis, who spent the day mud-waddling back and forth across the arena grounds in his bright orange “Event Staff” shirt — every so often delighting small mobs of kids by tossing to them the salad plate sized log slices from the cut and pile event.

Some 55 volunteers spent eight months working up to the two-day festival, trying to revive an event that ran for 18 years back when Payson had a sawmill and the timber industry anchored the local economy. Now, the woodcutter’s skills that once made a living instead serve to entertain tourists, who now dominate Rim Country economics.

Despite the sparse crowd, the people who made it through the gate seemed to have a good time, especially the kids who participated in various events and the spectators lured from the stands to try their hand at assorted wood-related activities.

Contests included scrambling up a temporary tree with boot spikes and a belt strap, cutting logs into thin slices and piling up the disks, throwing an ax from an impressive distance at a huge bull’s-eye painted on a big old log, and slicing through logs with hand and power saws of wonderful variety.

The peripatetic announcer maintained an amiable patter, promoting the hot dog sellers, making wisecracks and overstating with a wink.

He gamely pumped up a laid-back moment of controversy, when George and Tina Harrison stepped forward for the two-man crosscut saw event on Saturday.

Shockingly enough, Tina turned out to be, well, a woman.

Men and women were supposed to compete on separate teams — Jack and Jack or Jill and Jill.

Tina’s appearance provoked a hurried conference of orange-shirted officials, who solemnly accepted a “Jack and Jill” team. Heck. What could it hurt. Kind of cute.

George and Tina thereupon ripped through a log in 11.2 seconds — about 8 seconds faster than the competing two-man teams had managed.

An ax blow for sexual liberation, no doubt — undercut ever so slightly by the women’s rolling pin throw taking place on the other side of the muddy arena.

John Spears claimed the title as male Logger of the Year, with Monty Spears taking honors for the women’s event.

Leslie Land won a 90cc ATV, Brandi Spears won a STIHL chain saw and many of the rest of the contestants got a taste of the $12,000 in prize money. And a good time was had by all — who showed up.

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