The sea of cowboy hats at Saturday’s fourth annual Gila County Pioneers Dinner and Dance at the Tonto Apache gym brought back memories of an older, simpler time.
For the past four years, the night has brought everybody together to eat cowboy style, dance and bid on auctions to support organizations linked to Rim Country’s heritage.
This year, close to 950 people attended, and Duke Wilbanks said it seemed like more pioneers showed up this year, along with younger people. “That’s what we really want to see,” he said about passing on the tradition.
Doralee Connolly said she attends every year. “I love seeing all our old friends,” she said, standing near auction items.
Although Connolly said she usually buys something every year, she hadn’t yet closely examined this year’s offerings.
Proceeds in the past have supported FFA programs in Payson and Young, Tonto Basin schools, and scholarships for students.
Everybody is invited to the dinner, although organizers say honoring the dying-off pioneers is central to its purpose. People may die, but history can live on.
George Morris remembered annual 4th of July celebrations as a kid.
The food was free and talk would flow. Then, the town grew so big, “we couldn’t afford to do it anymore,” he said.
Events later organized by the Tonto Cowbelles disbanded several years ago, but inspired a core group of 10 men, pioneer descendants, to carry on the tradition.
Today, Payson has chain stores, traffic lights and many a newbie from metropolitan areas nevertheless seduced by old Western lore. But on Saturday, real cowboys and newbies alike could eat beef and beans, have a piece of cake, and reminisce about the good ol’ days.
A night that good can’t be erased, even if you get stuck in traffic on the way out.