The Story Of Payson, Arizona

Chapter 38: The W.P.A. Comes To Town

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Photo courtesy of Stan Brown

The work on the Bush Highway by the CCC used some of the same quarried sand stone that is in the old Rock Building at Julia Randall Elementary School in Payson.

As Payson’s population increased, the two aging frame structures on Main Street that had served as schoolhouses since 1901 and 1916 respectively were simply inadequate. The Great Depression was under way in the 1930s, and local families were in no position to finance a larger school. However, the Federal Government had established the Works Progress Administration (WPA), which provided the needed funds. It was up to the local school district to develop the plans and hire the work done, which gave some much needed relief for Rim Country families who joined the construction crews. Not only were local men employed for the work, but also many family members pitched in and invested their time and energy in the task. It was truly a community project, and the community joyfully took ownership, affectionately dubbing it “The Rock School.”

The construction was of red sandstone rocks cut by hand from the quarry south of town. They were from the same quarry whose stones had graced Main Street buildings from Payson’s early days.

Anna Mae Deming said a man named John Hughes owned the quarry, “at least he lived there.”

Grady Harrison hauled the rocks in his truck to the building site, adjacent to the Ranger Station complex on the west end of Main Street. When the building was completed in February 1939 the citizens pitched in to finish the flooring with cleaning and oiling.

The basketball team was still practicing and playing their games in Barkdoll’s dance hall, so now the boys went to work helping lay the tongue and groove floor in the gym. Audrie Harrison recalled helping attach metal grates over the windows of the gym to protect them from errant basketballs.

This grand space now became something of a community center; not only for local sports, but also for the community Christmas programs, graduations, and dances.

When basketball games were moved to the new gym, everyone realized the court was still small with little room for spectators. However, the ceiling was higher than Barkdoll’s had been, allowing for the hoops to be set at regulation height.

The gym had two wood stoves in the corners of the playing floor, which had been the case at Barkdoll’s, so players continued to be branded when they raced to retrieve stray passes.

In fact, each room in the school had a stove. It was Hardin Ezell’s job to maintain the stoves and keep them supplied with wood. Years later, during a major renovation of the Rock School, the wood stoves were retired and the rock from their chimneys was used to fill in the gymnasium windows. This left telltale outlines on the exterior façade.

Memories of old timers recalling their student days in the Rock School included bats that hung in the gables. Throwing rocks at them was one sport, but never to be forgotten was the night when a covey of bats swarmed into the room during a basketball game, causing a quick exodus by spectators and teams. Memory of the score that night was wiped out.

Many remember that discipline was very tight. Close ties between home and school were the rule in the small community, especially since many of the families were represented on the school board.

However, no rules could rule out the natural instinct of young people to play tricks. There would be Halloween celebrations in the future that climaxed with the school bell on the principal’s roof. Then there was a haunted basement. In preparation for the building, a basement had been dug by hand with pick and shovel, and for years after the building was in use a Haunted House was created in that basement. Local children eagerly attended school on those occasions to see how scared they could become. This prompted several of the boys to plan a marvelous ruse. They had found a prehistoric grave in the Demings’ back yard, and recovering the bones they planted them in a closeted space in the basement. The gleeful trick then was to lead some unsuspecting younger students down the stairs into the basement while spinning a ghost story, then remove their blindfolds, and let them see the skeleton. Another memory surrounding this legend was that the teachers had sometimes sent children down there to cool off or experience punishment for misbehavior. The teachers were not aware of the skeleton, but the victim was soon scared out of his wits.

The skeleton story did not surface until the closing months of the 20th century, when a repairman sent into the basement area to check on utilities discovered the bones. His report raised a great mystery as to whether this was the victim of a murder, or some homeless person had crawled in there to die. At last one of the original culprits came forward with the truth, and the story was confirmed when anthropological specialists labeled the bones as prehistoric.

Pat Cline, the daughter of Walter Haught, who helped build the Rock School, recalls taking her books from the wooden schoolhouse and walking over to the rock building that February day in 1939. All 12 grades used the rock building until Payson’s continued growth required the addition of more classrooms. In 1955 the school was expanded to accommodate the elementary students in the new section, while high school classes and the gym were housed in the old building. The seemingly endless demand for more classrooms led to the building of a separate high school in 1962. The Junior High still used the rock building until 1968 when it was moved into four rooms near the high school. By 1972 the high school needed those rooms, so the Middle School moved back to Main Street. It was 1979 when a new Middle School was built.

In 1985 the Rock School was officially named the Julia Randall Elementary School, to honor the 46-year tenure of Miss Randall who lovingly taught many generations of Rim Country students.

The name would carry over to a very modern elementary school built where the expanded complex had been built years before.

Through it all the Rock School remained. Long gone were the simple days when this landmark could accommodate a student body, but the historic building would not die.

In 1977 former teacher and school principal Ira Murphy had written, “The (rock building) still stands and is known in educational circles as probably the poorest planned school building in America. The building is sturdy, and will remain erect after most of us are gone, but the floor plan and educational usage were never considered by those responsible for it.”

Payson residents whose parents and grandparents had come up through the Rock School were gratified when the old building came into a new life of its own. A bond issue approved in 2006 enabled the building of an entirely new Julia Randall Elementary School, as well as improvements to the other campuses of the Payson Unified School District. These now included not only the middle school and high school, but two additional elementary schools located elsewhere in town.

The Rock Building became the administrative headquarters for the district. As it was being remodeled the original window openings on the front were restored. An attractive entrance was created leading to the administrative offices, and many of the original building’s features were restored after seven decades of remodeling, including restoration of the original oak floors.

The old Rock School remained a monument to the love and labor of Payson citizens, and the depression-time funding through the WPA.

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