The Story Of Payson, Arizona




Stan Brown photo

The garage built by Grady Harrison stands at the corner of Main Street and south McLane, a monument to Payson’s “days gone by.” Harrison built it from a dismantled roundhouse at Globe’s Dominion Mine. 

The Womans Club plan for a sundial as Payson’s official timepiece seemed primitive for the growing sophistication of the town. The newer method of setting the official town clock by the mailman’s watch was a little better.

The fact that the only lighting in town depended on kerosene lamps began to feel like living in the “dark ages.” After all, soon after the turn of the century Phoenix had electricity coming from water-powered generators.  Surely there was some way for Payson to tap into the harnessing of electricity that was sweeping the nation.

In 1922 an answer to this dilemma was created by the inventive mind of Grady Harrison. He wanted an electric light in his own house on Frontier Street and maybe one in his garage just down the hill on Main Street.[1]

He purchased a 2.5-kilowatt Kohler electric generator, utilizing his truck to get it over the mountain. The little light plant produced 110 volts, enough to barely do the job.

His son Audrie Harrison would later joke that by the time the line got down to the garage, “you’d have to strike a match to see whether the light bulb was on or not.”

As might be expected, his neighbor, Napoleon “Boss” Chilson, soon wanted a light bulb too and Grady obliged with a line.

It was obvious a larger generator would have to be purchased. This one doubled the power to 5-kilowatts, but it soon barely served a growing demand.

Grady built a tin shed on Main Street to house the generator, and ran two lines, one back to his house and to Chilson’s, and the other to the garage.[2] 

But how could he turn down other close friends and neighbors? Ernest Pieper wanted a light bulb. Then Wes Powers, who worked for Grady as a truck driver at the time, put in a request. Then the Stewarts were asking for light in their restaurant, and then the Womans Club.

By this time Harrison had to charge for the service. It was not cheap to put in all those lines, pay for increasingly larger generators, power them and maintain them. He charged a flat rate of $1 a month for one light bulb. The service rapidly expanded to the Pieper Saloon, Boardman’s Mercantile, and the Pioneer Hotel. The latter wanted four bulbs. This growing demand required more power, and Harrison added a 10-kilowatt Kohler generator. The larger generator served all the stores at the center of town, and the smaller one sent electricity to houses at the east end of town. Yet, the power was not sufficient to provide enough light if everyone turned on their light bulbs at the same time.

Harrison hired H. D. “Dad” Shepherd to take care of the power plants. He would shut them down about 10:30 p.m. and start them up again at 5 a.m. Shepherd had been a goat rancher in Kirkland Valley, southwest of Prescott, and moved to Payson in 1919 with his wife Sarah.[3] Shepherd opened a butcher shop and lived in a house behind Pieper’s Saloon.

Furnishing electric power for Payson was getting to be big business, and Grady needed to expand his facility. He wanted to build a larger garage anyway, so he bought a used railroad roundhouse in Globe from one of the mines. He disassembled it and brought the material to Payson and constructed his new building on the corner of Main and South McLane. The year was 1934.

This time he purchased a used 20-kilowatt Van Severin, single cylinder diesel powered generator. It weighed three tons and was made of solid copper. He bought it when the Parker Dam changed over from producing direct to alternating current. Three copper wires, two hot, and a neutral one carried the direct current service for Payson. The further the lines went, the less voltage they carried. However, the lines now stretched as far away as an old farmhouse that stood west of the ranger station.[4] 

Even more power was required, so Harrison added still another generator, a 30-kilowatt Fairbanks Morse diesel with a 9-foot flywheel which one had to stand on and swing down to get it started. The two most recent generators sat side by side in the new garage with just enough room for someone to get between them for service.

Grady’s son Audrie Harrison had the job of keeping the generators lubricated and running, especially on Saturday nights. One of his famous stories relates how it was.

“The dance started at 9 o’clock. By 8 o’clock everybody had their light bulb unplugged and they’d light by kerosene lamp so they could plug in their electric curling iron, or their ironing iron, into the outlet they had. It loaded those two diesels up, and the steam just boiled off the top of them running red-hot. That’s why I never learned to dance. Every dance night I was down there keeping the engines going. I had to hand pump oil into the system … When the dance was over at 1 o’clock I’d shut the big one down and the town would run on the small one.”

This local power company supplied Payson with electricity through World War II. Then in 1947 the Arizona Power Company purchased it. The deal included Grady Harrison’s list of customers, which numbered 65. About six months later that company merged with the Salt River Power Company and formed Arizona Public Service. At that time power lines were brought in from Fossil Creek, and the whole Rim Country would soon have access to electric power. Once again, an old way of life was giving way to new innovation. People would no longer have to shape their lives around the light from the sun and kerosene lamps.

  [1] Grady Harrison’s first garage was located at approximately 518 W. Main St.

[2] The old tin shed collapsed in the big snowstorm of 1967.

[3] Sarah and her first husband John Holder had a family on the East Verde River and raised goats. They moved several times but when John was diagnosed with cancer he returned to his native Mississippi to die. They were divorced, and in 1912 Sarah’s son Spyas took his mother and the younger children to Kirkland Valley. There she married fellow goat rancher Shepherd the next year.

[4] This farthest house stood where the Assembly of God Church stands today.


Tim Barrett 7 years, 4 months ago

Thanks to Mr. Brown for another Story of Payson! I just love Arizona history and am looking to come back home and be a part of it!


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