The Story Of Payson, Arizona

Chapter 30: The Class of 1927

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Photo courtesy of the Rim Country Museum

These two school buildings stood on Payson’s Main Street, where the parking lot for the Community Presbyterian Church is today. One of the two buildings was for the grades, and the other was the high school.

In 1927, the Payson School graduated its first class from a new high school curriculum. There were two graduates. The high school classes were held in one of the two clapboard buildings near the corner of Oak and Main Streets, where today the Community Presbyterian Church has a parking lot.

The yearbook of that class resides in the archives of the Rim Country Museum and was donated by the Risser family. The father of Payson ophthalmologist Dr. Christian Risser V was in the third grade that year. “Christy,” as he was called, was the son of Payson’s first resident doctor, Christian Risser III.[1] The yearbook gives us a glimpse of life in the village of Payson in 1927.

Acknowledged in the book are all the teachers and students from grade one through high school. There were two seniors graduating that year, Valda Beard and Ellen Skinner. These girls held all the offices of student government and together edited the yearbook, which they named “Sunshine,” as well as the school paper, The P. H. S. Broadcaster. They dedicated the yearbook to the principal D. W. Davis, who also taught classes, coached basketball and conducted the orchestra.

Until 1918, if a student wished to go beyond the eighth grade, he or she had to go to another town, perhaps Globe or Mesa or even Flagstaff. However, in that year, some high school subjects began to be offered in Payson. By 1920 enough high school subjects were given to provide the 15-1/2 credit hours needed for the state’s requirement for graduation. However, the North Central Association of Colleges and Secondary Schools did not accredit the high school until 1973. During the intervening years, students had to take make-up courses if they went on to college.[2]

In 1927 there were 14 students in the high school freshman class, 12 in the sophomore class, five in the junior class, and at the beginning of the school year there were three in the senior class. Obviously high school scholarship was not a vocation coveted by many youth from the area. One of the dropouts would have been the third potential graduate that year. We read, “shortly before Thanksgiving Catherine Beard, having found the field of matrimony more promising than school, abandoned her class leaving only two.”  In this comment, written by Catherine’s sister Valda and friend Ellen, we detect a note either of anger or jealousy.

The two seniors penned a paragraph in their yearbook worthy of the Chamber of Commerce.  They adopted a slogan from Yavapai County, and called Payson “The Heart of Arizona… Located geographically near the center of Arizona we are also in the heart of all the state’s principal industries. With Payson taken as a center, Globe, Phoenix, Prescott, Flagstaff and Winslow are all equidistant. Here, one hundred miles from any large town and rail-port, is the last frontier. Nowhere in Arizona is the climate better than ours. Good roads now make this district accessible to all points of the state.”[3]

The two seniors who were sisters, Valda and Catherine Beard, call up several Rim Country families. Together with their parents, grandparents, husbands and in-laws their stories encompass the pioneer families of Beard, Taylor, Belluzzi, and Pyle. Even though Catherine Beard dropped out early in her senior year, her sister made sure her thoughts were posted in the “class prophecy.” The yearbook reports that Catherine’s dream for the future was to be a good wife. We suspect she had this much on her mind going into the year. Having “abandoned her class,” Catherine married Thomas Sanders on Dec. 27, 1927, which seems to suggest that after dropping out of school she spent a year courting and preparing for her wedding.[4]

Catherine Beard further reflected the loving family from which she sprang because she listed her “favorite pastime” as “remembering Papa.”  Her papa was Fletcher Beard, the first ranger on the Tonto National Forest’s Payson District in 1906. He died on duty in 1913 at the age of 40, when his daughters were just three or four years old. They lived with their mother, Nellie Pyle Beard, on the ranch in Starr (sic) Valley.

Valda Beard was also a moonstruck young woman. She wrote that her “besetting sin” was “to be in love,” and her dream of the future was to live in a cottage. The class prophetess, Ellen Skinner, wrote of Valda, “The Spirit of prophecy conducted me to a large ranch surrounded by large grazing lands on which there were many cattle. In the doorway of the beautiful ranch-house stood Valda, the mistress of all these riches, watching with anxious eyes for her husband.”

That husband would be Richard Taylor, who was indeed a rancher and among whose children were to be prominent Payson residents Fern Spears and Lois Bissett. Richard and Valda owned the famous Doll Baby Ranch (after Richard bought it from his father Dick Taylor), and later sold it to “outsiders” (a local reference to non-Rim Country families).[5]

As for Ellen Skinner, she would marry Milford T. Rigg.

The 1927 high school yearbook devotes space to Payson’s favorite sport at the time, basketball. The editors wrote, “Basketball has been our most popular sport this year… The long distance between towns and difficulty of transportation made competitive games very few. We have had, however, several games with Pine. Though they have won most of them, we have tried to be real sportsmen and take our defeats in the right spirit.”

Payson’s basketball team consisted of Bert Belluzzi (8th grade), Whitman Skinner (a freshman), Raymond Belluzzi (a freshman), Ivan Wade (7th grade), and William Packard (a freshman). 8th grader Fred Taylor had been on the team but we read that he “dropped out of school to help with work at home.”[6] There were no juniors on the team in 1927, testimony to the shrinking size of the classes as the dropout rate was large.

Basketball practice and home games were held in the community dance hall, located at the foot of the old Pine Road. Hoops were placed at either end of the floor, and the sidelines went right up to the walls. One row of chairs ringed the floor for spectators, and when the ball hit one of them, it was called out of bounds. It was also out of bounds when it hit the big wood stove. Many a player got branded on cold winter days when the stove was roaring hot. Visiting teams had considerable handicaps, not used to contending with stoves and close walls.  Furthermore, the ceiling of the hall was below the top of the backboards at the hoops. The Payson team had learned to shoot without an arch and to work the ball in close. Another hazard was that the dance floor was slick from the dance night waxing. Perhaps in addition to distance, it was such conditions that kept competing teams away from Payson.

In 1923 Julia Randall began teaching in the Payson School, and during the 1926-27 school year she was 26 years old. She said in an oral history interview with Nick Houser, Oct. 21, 1970, “There were no Indians (in school) when I went to school. After I had been teaching a while they did bring in Ernest Burdette to go to school. And I remember old Henry Irving came down and asked if we’d take him in, put him in school. And we did. Then all the rest of these little kids came along, went to school. We’ve never been able to graduate one from high school. But there was a boy that graduated from high school last spring [1970]. His name was Lincoln. I think he was a Navajo…”

In another Houser interview, this one with Walter and Mae Haught, Walter recalled, “There was Indian kids attending school at Payson, and I tell you that there’s one that is just a sharp cookie. And he’s determined to get an education — not in an Indian school. He wants to finish college.” At that Mae interjected, “He’s a Navajo; John Rankin.”

Though the two reports gave the Navajo lad different names, it seems he was the first from the reservation to make it clear through high school. By that time, the old clapboard buildings were gone and the Julia Randall School was in operation. It took many years to draw the children of the Apache reservation into the school system. Many Payson residents encouraged this to happen, and while most of them did not speak English when they enrolled, they soon caught on and became the first generation to begin leaving the native language behind. It is one of the sad truths that as native languages become obsolete, so also the history and stories and subtle symbolisms of the tribes also are lost.

However, in 1927 no Apache or other tribal children were in the Payson School. With a final look at the class of 1927, we find the graduating editors quoting this little joke.

Ellen: I think he is so cheap, just like a Ford.

Valda: Yes, but his clutch is so different.

[1] See “The Story of Payson” Chapter 20.

[2] Information in Rim Country History, Northern Gila County Historical Society, 1984, page 33

[3] By 1927 the Apache Trail, connecting the Phoenix area to Tonto Basin, had been constructed in connection with the building of the Roosevelt Dam, dedicated in 1911.  A graded road from Roosevelt to Payson had also been built. The Bush Highway over the Mazatzal Mountains would not be built until 1933/1934.

[4] For Catherine’s life story see Volume 2 of The Pioneer Women of Gila County.

[5] Richard Taylor’s parents were Dick and Angela (Belluzzi) Taylor. He owned the Diamond H Ranch on the lower East Verde River, and managed the Doll Baby Ranch until he bought it from its absentee owner.

[6] We are not sure of this name. Richard Taylor had three brothers, Bill, Fritz and Ed. This might be a typographical error for Ed.

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