It was in the summer of 1935 that Payson began to be a destination for airplanes. It was Cliff “Tuffie” Edwards who launched the feverish hobby that soon gripped a number of local ranchers and town folk. He was from Texas, as were so many early residents of the Payson area, and in 1910, by the age of 12, Edwards was already a capable cowboy riding with the best of them.
As he grew, he hired out to ranches in New Mexico and Arizona, ultimately claiming Payson and the Tonto Basin as the place he loved best.
However, as the 1920s got under way he discovered his true love was not being a cowboy but flying, and soon he was making a living as a stunt pilot in California. He changed his nickname from Tuffie to “Tailspin Edwards.”
In July of 1935, he decided to fly to his favorite place and spend some time with the cowboys participating in Payson’s “August Doin’s.” Flying from California he landed in Peeples Valley, southwest of Prescott, and after spending the night there he took off for Payson. He tells about that morning in his book “Horseback and Airborne”:
“Next morning after two hours of sleep and a hearty breakfast I flew on to Payson. I was surprised to find that the only two places I thought I could land had gotten so much smaller in the last five years. I pancaked down in the old Payeatt meadow. No one was expecting me as it was the first time an airplane had ever landed in Payson. The celebration lasted two weeks. I had never seen so many people at a celebration. Nearly every day I flew one or two flights to Phoenix with injured cowboys, bull riders and bronc riders. I also flew many flights with sightseeing passengers ...”
His presence was timely for his family, because during those weeks his sister Estalee Wade, who with her husband had built the Payson Hotel, became sick and needed to be flown to the doctor in Phoenix.
He continued writing about that summer, “I would fly from daylight to dark and then dance until twelve or one o’clock. Then I would go to Mother Hilligas’ home, draw a bucket of cold water from the well and pour it over my head. I would then pull my boots off and fall asleep on the bed.”
The surprise descent onto the meadow, where the Payson Country Club golf course was later established, was followed by the development of landing strips, the first of which was Aero Drive. Local air buffs got together and bought a new airplane for $1,500, and called themselves The Payson Flying Club. Audrey Harrison said, “They were Keith and Lucinda Hathaway, Bob Chambers, Dave Davidson and myself. And I think the other was Jimmy Deming.”
This first planned airstrip in Payson was a 1,800-foot runway, built in 1946. It went from Ponderosa Street almost to McLane, crossing the future right of way for the Beeline Highway, and past the barn on Doctor Risser’s ranch. The landing strip saw a lot of action for several years, but had to be moved when the Beeline Highway pushed into town.
Around 1948 Preston Dooley developed a second airstrip on the north side of town. He bulldozed the trees down the middle of the valley, creating a landing strip 250 feet wide. Pilots reported that taking off and landing required a high level of skill because the crosswinds made it tricky. Dooley placed a four-plane hangar where the Masonic Lodge was later built, and he planned to develop a resort. It would include a swimming pool and homes for people from the Valley who would spend the season here. It was to be called Payson Air Park. However, after four years the project went bankrupt and the area was subdivided. Because of the landing strip the main street of the new subdivision was named Airline Drive and other streets were given the names of prominent airplane builders. The landing strip itself became Rancho Road, and occasionally planes would land on it until complaints from new residents stopped the practice.
By this time the Payson Flying Club had dwindled to three members, and without a place to land they used the new Beeline Highway as a landing strip. Power lines crossed the road in about three places so getting in and out was difficult. The planes were tied down about where the Payson Feed Store later stood. They would taxi out onto the gravel highway, go north down to Main Street, turn around and take off heading south. The pilot would get the plane about six feet off the ground, go under the power lines, then pull up and bank to the right. The plane would gain altitude going down the American Gulch, and the pilot could head off in whatever direction he wished to go from there. The visual image of a luckless auto coming into town on the highway and meeting an oncoming airplane gives one pause. However, the local sheriff was very cooperative and would stop any traffic during these maneuvers.
In the 1940s, even with the newly developing Beeline Highway, it would still take travelers five hours to drive between the Valley and Payson, so traffic was sparse. In the 1950s the Beeline was being built and the presence of heavy equipment on the right of way ended its use as a landing strip for even the most adventurous pilots. Fritz Taylor allowed the fliers to use his pasture, an area in recent years surrounded by a white fence near Rumsey Park. On one occasion a pilot unfamiliar with Payson ended up in the oak trees beside the pasture upon his taking off. The Flying Club was quick to respond and rescue the passengers, who were unhurt. Several other planes also cracked up in that meadow with its adjoining woods. The cow tracks were deep and, Harrison said, “Fritz didn’t want us to drag it and smooth it up.”
In 1953 a twister ravaged Star Valley and a hailstorm in Payson stripped the fabric off the planes. The frames were severely damaged, and parts of the planes lay about. Audrey Harrison took his plane apart and stored it, eventually selling it. For all practical purposes this ended the Flying Club.
Soon the demand for air access to Payson resulted in the establishment of a landing strip on Burch Mesa. However, the embryonic airport did not receive professional attention until the town was incorporated in 1973, and by 1975 there was an asphalt runway with one tie-down.
The saga of those days when horses began to give way to airplanes in Payson is all but lost in the sights and sounds to today’s busy airport.
1. “Horseback and Airborne,” privately published by Cliff Edwards; available at the Rim Country Museum gift shop.
2. Oral history interviews with Audrey Harrison by Stan Brown in Rim Country Museum library.
3. Author’s personal survey of the various sites.