In the year 1920 Payson’s first civic organization was created and it was all about a sundial.
The story begins with a summer visitor from Phoenix, Dr. Neff. While a seasonal resident during 1918 to 1921, Dr. Neff practiced medicine in the community, complementing the practice of Dr. Christian Risser. It annoyed him that there was no place in town to obtain the correct time. The various mercantile stores had their timepieces, as did the post office and the bank, but they were never in agreement. Even the school had to guess at the correct time.
Dr. Neff told local residents that in other towns there were civic organizations, like women’s clubs, that contributed improvements to the town. He began to talk up the idea of organizing the women to install a sundial on Main Street, which would become the official timepiece for the area. As he made rounds, calling on the sick, he urged the women to do this and finally led the way by calling a public meeting.
The ranchers really didn’t care about this project since they had learned to gage the time of day by the position of the sun. However many of the women thought it was an excellent idea, so under the doctor’s guidance a group of them formed the Payson Womans Club in 1920. From the beginning the group used the word “Womans” without apostrophes or a plural spelling. The initial goal of the club was to bring an official time to Payson.
The ladies elected Lena Chilson its first president in August 1921 and by 1922 the club was affiliated with the state Federation of Woman’s Clubs. However, before the sundial fund could be raised, daily mail service began between Globe and Cottonwood, with Payson a midway stop. Boardman’s store housed the post office, and the clock there was accepted as the official time for the town. The mail driver would note the correct time on his pocket watch at the Western Union depot in Globe and report this information at Boardman’s to set the town clock.
The new approach to time keeping for the town, a daily adjustment direct from Western Union in Globe, made the plan for a sundial obsolete. However, once a group of Americans has organized they seldom disorganize after their original purpose is reached. They create new projects, and that is what the Payson Womans Club proceeded to do. With funds in the bank and enthusiasm running high, the women set their sights on greater things. They began a long line of contributions to the community. For example, there was the community Christmas tree, which became a favorite festival for the town. Boardman’s mercantile ordered the candy and nuts. Since citrus fruit was a special treat in this isolated mountain region, oranges were also obtained. The women sewed bags of stiff crinoline to hold the fruit and other goodies. The bags were two feet long and eight inches wide to accommodate the gifts. Once filled they were stored in washtubs and stashed behind the tree to await the great day. Some years there were also gooey popcorn balls in waxed paper. To cover the cost, high school girls went door to door asking for donations. The Womans Club made sure no one went home ungifted.
School programs began to benefit from the Womans Club activities, and the club took ownership of the Payson Pioneer Cemetery guaranteeing perpetual care. The artful ladies then tackled a project that involved the wider community. They arranged to build a bridge over the American Gulch, which gave better access to the cemetery. Each family in the town was asked to contribute a fifty-cent sack of cement, and Henry Haught’s forest sawmill, located at today’s Tonto Village, contributed the necessary timbers. Everett Jackson was paid $300 to build the bridge, which when rebuilt in 1991 cost the town $400,000.
Perhaps the most well known project of the Womans Club was the establishment of a public library. This was significant for a town that was so far off the beaten path. At the same time their growing membership needed a building where they could meet for their activities.
Meetings had been held in the small schoolhouse on Main Street where two cupboards were commandeered to hold books for the embryonic library. Members had donated the books, and when the collection outgrew the school cupboards it was moved to the new manse of the Presbyterian Church. Space there was rented for $2 a month.
The money raised by the women was divided three ways: books, operating expenses, and a building fund. Payson’s Justice of the Peace Jay Vann desired to help the club by donating his interest in the Pieper Fish Hatchery on the upper East Verde River as well as his interest in a gold mine. Neither of these gifts brought in much, if any, income, but they certainly produced a mountain of paper work which is housed in the Rim Country Museum archives.
The club’s building fund grew slowly, but in 1932 when Payson’s Commercial Bank closed the $500 that had been saved was lost. Later a portion of that was recovered, enough for a down payment on a large lot at today’s address of 510 W. Main Street. There were two small frame buildings on the property, and an outhouse. The larger of the two buildings contained the bakery of Frenchy Paquette. He sold his baked bread and candy from the front, but his more successful enterprise was at the back door where he dispensed his famous bootleg whiskey. This continued after the Womans Club bought the property, until his lease with them ran out and he was out of business. Needless to say, such goings on under the women’s ownership provided the town with many jokes and much laughter.
When the women took full possession of the property they had the smaller cabin moved and attached to the larger one. The attachment became the kitchen and the larger section became the meeting room and town library. By this time they were able to place 674 books on the shelves.
The “two-holer” out back continued to be used, though it was now called “The Powder Room.” It became the object of numerous Halloween pranks.
With the purchase of this property the Womans Club also became owners of Payson’s earliest jail. The large oak tree by the street had already been called “the chaining tree.” There were no jail cells in Payson, and so the Justice of the Peace would chain the drunk and disorderly to the tree until they sobered up. Persons arrested for more serious crimes were also held there. In 1903 the Booth brothers from Gisela were held there until a coroner’s jury indicted them for the murder of two young sheepherders, and they were carted off to Globe.
The bootlegger’s shack on Main Street became the center for meetings, dances, bazaars, box suppers and bridge parties. The women went about their fund-raising with vigor and personal sacrifice. Uncounted suppers, craft sales, dances and contributions swelled the building fund. Members would contribute the proceeds from their week’s production of milk and butter, vegetables from their gardens, or fresh baked bread. One woman gave the income from two piano lessons she taught that week.
Everything was not always so serious with the Womans Club. In 1930 the ladies staged “an Indian raid,” during the summer rodeo. It was 7 p.m. and many attendees were gathered around a huge campfire for a streak fry. Suddenly the “Indians” attacked, led by Jim Deming riding bareback on a paint pony. Avis Chilson rode up and fired her rifle at him, the bullets being loaded with homemade laundry soap. He was “knocked off” his horse, ostensibly by the bullet, and before it was over “Indians” lay dying all about or rode back into the hills.
In 1948 the new Womans Club building was begun, replacing the little buildings they had purchased from Frenchy Paquette. The old combination building was moved across the street to stand behind the Connally Building (501 W. Main Street). Additions and improvements to the new building were made over the years as funds were raised. One proud member commented, “It ain’t big, but it’s ours and it’s paid for.”
At last the Womans Club member’s dream of a public library became a reality. By 1987 the club had accumulated about 30,000 books, and deeded them over to the Town of Payson. The enlarged Womans Club building was then loaned to the Town as gift to become the official Payson library. In 2001 a new Payson library building in Rumsey Park replaced the one at the old Womans Club. The women had their club building back for other uses.
In an Oct. 23, 1959 Arizona Republic article, historian Dan Dedera with tongue in cheek wrote, “The ruination of old Payson is complete. They paved the main street, the Pioneer Bar burned down, and they even stopped nailing hides on the barn doors. Now they’re building a library!”