The Story Of Payson, Arizona

Chapter 45: The rodeo searched for a home

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They called it the August Doin’s and for the first 74 years it was held in several different locations. Beginning in 1884 the event was held in Pieper’s field, where the sawmill would one day stand, and in more recent years where the Sawmill Crossing mall is located.

However, before the turn of the century the horse racing, calf roping, bronco and bull riding had moved down Main Street, between today’s north and south McLane. With the advent of automobiles and the growing crowds of spectators, holding the events on Main Street became too dangerous. By 1920 the rodeo had been moved west of town to the Wilbanks’ pasture. In 1928 viewing stands were built in the bowl south of today’s golf course, and under those stands the annual competition was held for the best crops and canned goods. That event was later moved to Pine and became the Northern Gila County Fair.

As the rodeo opened on Wilbanks’ pasture, everyone stood at attention as the American flag was carried onto the field and a scratchy record of the National Anthem was played on a wind-up Victrola. Folks poured into town each August in spite of bad roads and long distances. It was all worthwhile to spend the week away from hard work, visiting with far-flung neighbors and relations. Preparations began on the surrounding ranches weeks beforehand so food would be ready for hungry relatives and visitors. Camps were set up under the trees in the area that would later house the Julia Randall School. Sheets were hung between camps for privacy, and cowboys rolled their blankets out under the trees or in saddle sheds, hay barns and porches. One ranch wife recalled there were 19 people staying with them for five days.

A common sport among the regulars was to spot “a dude,” and see to it he got a real bucking horse. The cowboys would tell the greenhorn that a good cowboy never put his feet solidly into the stirrups, and then they would watch him get bucked off in double quick time. One rowdy fellow was arrested for throwing firecrackers under the ladies’ long, fancy dance dresses. Excitement like that was good for talk the rest of the year. But manners were also required. A cowboy never wore his hat inside the dance hall or he would be asked to remove it because of the ladies present. Whenever introduced to a lady, a cowboy tipped his hat and when entering a home he removed it. He would never sit down to eat wearing his hat. If he forgot his manners, the others would help him remember.

By the time the grandstand was built, rodeo cowboys had organized nationally, and the Payson Rodeo drew competition from all over the West. In 1935 the national cowboy organization went on strike for better prize money. Then there was the summer of 1938 when the Boardman store, which had housed Payson’s first bank, caught on fire and destroyed the red sandstone “fireproof” building. Delsie Dee Journigan’s hamburger stand beside the store was doing a big business when her gasoline cook stove exploded. It sent fire into the rafters of the Payson Commercial and Trust Company. Even though the bank had folded during the Depression, the building housed the safe where the gate receipts and entrants’ fees from the rodeo were locked up. The Sunday afternoon crowd out in Wilbanks’ field saw the smoke just as events were coming to a close. The rodeo stopped as the men raced to put out the fire, but in a short time the interior was gutted, and the safe was too hot to open. There was concern that the cowboys, many of whom lived from one rodeo competition to the next, were unable to get their pay. The treasurer of the rodeo committee, Dick Robinson, said, “We’ll pay the bull riders with what we got on the Sunday receipts. Most of them don’t have anything and they’ll raise hell if you don’t pay them.” When the contestants lined up in the dance hall, where the committee kept an office, the bull riders were paid, and Constable Howard Childers dipped into his own pocket to pay the bronc riders. The ropers were left until last, and while only $50 remained, $4,500 was owed. The committee hastily tore pieces of paper from a tablet and wrote out IOUs. One of the cowboys begged for enough money for gas to get home, and the hat was passed. After a few days the safe was opened, and the money found undamaged.

In 1945 the national organization of cowboys had become the Rodeo Cowboys Association. That year the Wilbanks family offered to sell the rodeo grounds to the Payson Chamber of Commerce for $2,500. The offer was turned down, and the land became a subdivision called Rodeo Ranch Estates. Desperate for a new location, the rodeo committee moved it to the junction of highways 260 and 87. That land was National Forest property, so private offers to build a grandstand and a year-round racetrack were vetoed. Then in 1958, a plan was put in motion that would take some years to mature. Dale Rumsey secured 20 acres from the Forest Service with the idea of establishing a home for the Payson Rodeo. In 1961 Rumsey sold 10 of the 20 acres to the Chamber of Commerce, and the rodeo was moved to what would one day be called Rumsey Park.

It became a community effort. A well was put down by Aaron Haught, grandstands were built with lumber donated by Kaibab Industries, and many others donated time and materials to finish the rodeo’s new home in 1968, time for the 84th annual event.

By 1976 the Chamber of Commerce had paid off the debt, and the town of Payson accepted ownership of the rodeo grounds as a gift from the chamber. The town proceeded to negotiate with Mr. Rumsey for the remaining 10 acres. If the entire 20 acres could be consolidated, a grant would be available for the creation of a city park. In return for naming the park after him, Mr. Rumsey donated 3.143 acres to the town, and the town purchased the other 6.857 acres at a fair market value of $7,000 an acre. With the 20 acres in place, the Outdoor Recreation Coordinating Commission gave the town a grant of $383,295.36 to construct the park. By the middle of 1987 the town had invested twice that amount in developing the park. However the development continued, and 9 more acres were secured from the Forest Service on which to build the community swimming pool and place a water storage tank.

During those years, the local committee affiliated with the Rodeo Cowboys Association, and from then on nationally known contestants came to Payson. Rumsey Park became a spacious place where citizens of all ages could gather for fellowship and play. In 1995, after 27 years of service, the Rumsey Park grandstands were condemned as unsafe and uninsurable, so new stands were built. These were moved in the year 2000 to the next home for the Payson Rodeo, the Payson Event Center south of town.

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