The Story Of Payson, Arizona

Chapter 43: First steps toward a hospital


The story of medicine in the Rim Country is filled with drama and the heroics of many citizens.

For years settlers had to do without anything but home remedies, and these did little to help in the face of diphtheria, difficult childbirth, traumatic injuries, and prolonged illnesses.

At times there was a doctor in the area who had been hired by local mining companies and there were several women who served as midwives.

After the automobile made travel feasible, severe cases were transported to a hospital in Cottonwood, over the long, rough Fossil Creek road. In 1912 Payson received its first resident doctor, Christian Risser, who practiced throughout the Rim Country until his death in 1933. After that, a few short-term doctors interrupted a hiatus in medical care.

As is so often the case in matters of compassion, some local mothers decided to take action. Journalist Kay Loftfield wrote, “In 1953 Doris Taylor and Gladys Stern were having coffee together and discussing the need for a permanent doctor and a hospital in Payson. Doris was worried about raising her young son Eddie so far from medical attention.  The idea was born and they decided to do whatever was needed to build a hospital and get a full time doctor in Payson.”

The next year Doris invited a group of young women to meet and formulate a plan of action. They included Pat Cline, Johnnie Cline, Leta Jean Haught, Hazel Owens, Nora Surrett and Doris Taylor.  They met in Richard and Valda Taylor’s “Rock House” on Oak Street, and decided to form a Junior Woman’s Club, which would raise money for “the express purpose of establishing a medical facility.”[1]

They began holding meetings in the Payson Womans Club building, and soon gained recognition from the national organization of Junior Woman’s Clubs. They immediately began fund-raising events, raffles, style shows around the Ox Bow pool, and a “Buck A Month” club.

They were successful in getting Earnhart Ford to donate a car for a raffle; Korrick’s and Goldwater’s department stores in the Valley gave clothes for the style shows. Added to these gigantic efforts, a donation by Steve and Cindy Hathaway of two acres of land put them well on the way to a establishing a clinic. Jude and Alice Murphy gave a significant gift, and when the Valley National Bank granted them a loan of $25,000[2] they were ready to build.

The building included a waiting room, laboratory, surgery room, supply room, patient rooms, and an emergency entrance. The ceremony to dedicate the facility was held in December 1956. Good Samaritan Hospital donated hospital beds, bedside tables and hospital equipment.  The hospital in Cottonwood donated surgical instruments, gowns and miscellaneous items, and a hospital in Mesa donated a used X-ray machine.

A Board of Directors was formed and in July 1957 a young physician, David Gilbert, who had just finished his residency at Good Samaritan Hospital in Phoenix, answered the call to become Payson’s full-time doctor.  The Junior Woman’s Club received a National Community Achievement award for their monumental accomplishment and in recognizing the ongoing need for volunteers at the clinic the Club established an auxiliary. Peggy Miller chaired the effort in 1958, and soon a number of volunteers were donating their time.[3]

Dr. Gilbert made his office in the clinic, and paid rent to the board of directors. He soon found himself doubling as the local veterinarian and ambulance driver, using a donated station wagon. The volunteers from the Junior Woman’s Club auxiliary served as janitors, nurses’ aides, clerks, and office helpers. Sometimes they remained overnight with patients when there was no money for overnight nurses. They wore uniforms of pale pink with “caps died to match.” Colored letters were sewn on the caps indicating the number of hours served, and the group adopted a motto, “It’s not who is right, it’s what is right.” 

There were no by-laws and dues were 25 cents a month. In 1959 an addition to the clinic included a diagnostic laboratory and 10 beds. The board applied for a hospital license from the Arizona State Board of Health, and it was granted. By 1967 the number of beds increased to 26, and the Junior Woman’s Club disbanded, having fulfilled its original purpose.  Many of the members continued to serve on the Hospital Auxiliary.[4]

Of course fund-raising was a major activity in order to supply hospital gowns, curtains, carpet, emergency bandages, linens, and medical equipment. In the 1970s a fund-raiser was instituted called the Mile of Dimes. The goal was to collect enough dimes that would reach the 90 miles from Payson to Phoenix, estimating that would amount to $8,976 per mile. This enabled the addition of a kitchen, solarium, hydrotherapy and offices.

During much of this time a woman named Nathalie Huntress Smith had become prominent in the community.  She was the daughter of a publisher and heiress to a family fortune, and would become known in Payson for her philanthropy. She came west for health reasons and bought a 300-acre ranch in New River. On it she erected a square-dance barn, and that’s where she met Payson rancher, forester, pack-train operator and lion hunter Lewis Pyle.  He attended a few dances and his courtship with Nan Pyle began. They were married in 1952, she moved to his home in Payson, and joined the Payson Womans Club. She became the librarian for the town library sponsored by the Womans Club and personally contributed over a dozen books every month.

Dear to her heart was the work of the Payson Clinic, and when her husband died in 1975 Nan gave $100,000 in his memory from the sale of their ranch. It was the kick-off for a building fund with a goal of $1.2 million for a major expansion. This was completed in 1978, and the expanded facility was named the Lewis R. Pyle Memorial Hospital. It had grown to 44 beds. Over the years, records show that Nan Pyle contributed more than a quarter of a million dollars for the hospital.

One of the vignettes in this tradition was related by Gordon Sabine in his book Nan Pyle, Payson’s Unhappy Millionaire. “In the hospital there was a particular drawer that always had in it the unpaid bills. When it got too full, Nan would take out all the invoices, go down to her friend Anna Mae Deming at the Valley National Bank and ask how much she had in her account. They’d add up the bills and if there wasn’t enough in the Pyle account, off she’d go to talk with her accountant about getting more.”

For each dollar donated, a person had one vote in the election of members to the Hospital Board.  This meant that Nan Pyle literally controlled the board and many of its decisions, which inevitably brought some resentment in the community. She died in 1985, and in 1988 the policy of votes given for donations was eliminated and the board elected their own replacements.  In 1992 an air-vac helicopter facility was added and in 1995 the largest expansion was added through the sale of bonds.  This added 57,000 square feet to the hospital and brought the bed count to 66.  The little clinic so boldly begun by compassionate Rim Country women and a community-wide endeavor had gone far beyond a simple community hospital.  It was now called the Payson Regional Medical Center, and ownership was taken over by a large corporation. It has twice been honored as one of the best 100 hospitals in the country. 

[1] Unlike the Payson Womans Club, the Junior group used an apostrophe in their title: Junior Woman’s Club.

[2] Other sources say it was $20,000.

[3] Among them, joining with Peggy Miller, were Pat Cline, Mamie Ruth Hale, Joyce Flack, Martha Gilbert, Ruby Picht, Wanda Strahan, Ella Slaughter, Sandy Peters, and Pearl Cheuvrant.

[4] Related by Jeanette Miller and Helen Bates in a publication recounting the Auxiliary’s 25th anniversary, June 1985.


Mrs. Ella Lee Owens, widow of Keith Owens, has kindly shared the following corrections and additions to my article on Payson’s famous sawmill, published in the May 19, 2010 Rim Review: 1) The mill at “Diamond Point” that burned was at the junction of the Control Road and the road leading to Diamond Point. 2) The brothers Kerm and Keith did not purchase the property from Hathaways; it was Ella Lee and Keith who purchased the property from them.  3) Kerm sold his share to Keith before 1952.  4) The time Kerm left the mill he worked for an architectural firm, Letcher and Mahoney, in Phoenix, but he lived in Tempe.  5) Kerm never did manage the mill.  He “hated business” but was a wonderful mechanic and could invent machinery and keep it all running. He was an employee NOT the manager the rest of his life there.  6) When the mill was sold, she did not sell to Kaibab Industries, but to the partners Whiting and Kautch.  They in turn sold to Kaibab.  7) Regarding the Tonto Tribe, there never were as many employees from the tribe as indicated by Chief Campbell.  Out of 65 men employed, two or three at the most were Apaches. 8) The free water and wood was available to anyone who came to the mill for it, not simply the Tonto members.


Pat Randall 6 years, 7 months ago

Nan Pyle kept the hospital open for almost 10 yrs. with her own money.


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