Duke Wilbanks is adamant about wanting townspeople to understand that tomorrow’s Fourth Annual Gila County Pioneers Dinner and Dance is a community-wide event.
“Some people (mistakenly) believe it’s for pioneers only, but it’s not, it’s for everyone,” he said. “We do it to honor the pioneers, but we want everyone there.”
The idea to host the dance and dinner was hatched about five years ago by a committee of 10 men, all of whom hail from Payson pioneer families.
The committee’s motive was to honor living pioneers much the same way the former Tonto Cowbelles did for decades.
Before folding several years ago, the Cowbelles spearheaded dances, dinners, benefits and celebrations around Northern Gila County.
“I remember 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.”
Putting on the annual event is a labor of love for committee members who meet regularly at Roy Haught’s Star Valley home to plan the Cowbelle-like celebrations each fall with the profits going to worthwhile organizations linked to Rim Country’s heritage.
The first dinner and dance was an overwhelming success, earning $16,000. Much of that money was donated to the struggling Payson High School FFA program.
“We decided on it because of FFA’s link to ranching and rural life,” Haught said.
This year, $2,000 was donated to Tonto Basin Basin schools, $5,000 to Young FFA programs, and money for two scholarships was given 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 had 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.
In addition to the dinner-dances benefiting worthwhile causes, they also provide newcomers and Johnny-come-latelies a glimpse of what life was like decades ago in Payson.
“We wanted them 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.
The chuck wagon-like dinner is cooked by Haught who has built a reputation over the years as being one of the finest cowboy chefs in the county. The entertainment has been supplied by musicians with a rich 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 Wilbanks.
For tomorrow’s event, Armer’s band — “The Rowdy Bunch” — will provide the musical entertainment.
While the evening is festive and fun for everyone, the real purpose is to recognize surviving pioneers.
“There are fewer and fewer of them still around,” Haught said. “But we want to keep alive the rugged Western culture and remember those that came before us and what they did.”
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 Stuart Jones.
Wilbanks expects some of those to attend tomorrow’s celebration as well as others who have not yet been honored.