As if the Lone Ranger’s introduction “Return with us now to the thrilling days of yesteryear” was echoing through the air, Payson youth rodeo action soon takes a step back in time to when the thrills and spills of Arizona Junior High School Rodeo Finals was a Rim Country highlight.
Following an absence of more than two decades, the junior high finals return to the Rim Country to be held June 18 and 19 at the Payson Event Center.
Among those who remember the AJRA rodeo’s Payson heydays, 1969 to 1985, is Nancy Parker Jamison.
As a founding member if the Mogollon Montoneras, she recalls, “We (Montoneras) sponsored it at first with the Sheriff’s Posse and then took it over ourselves and did it for so many years.”
Jamison is not sure why the finals stopped being held in Payson, but says, “most of the kids that were really active grew up and then we lost some of our support.”
She believes losing the finals to other towns around the state was a sad day for Payson because the rodeo showcased the Rim Country to hundreds of visitors and was a big part of the town’s western cultural heritage.
Among the hundreds of young cowgirls who participated in the junior high rodeos was Lani Hall, now the Youth Development Agent for the Northern Gila County 4-H program.
“The rodeo was a huge, big part of a lot of young lives,” she said. “It was also a lot of fun.”
Most all of those who participated in the Payson finals are today pushing 40 years of age and raising young cowboys and cowgirls of their own.
Jamison and Hall remember Ty Chilson, Cutter Holt, Greg Armstrong, Johnna Kyle, Clint James and Terry James as being regulars at the AJRA finals.
Chilson, now owner of Payson Fence and the father of a budding Payson High School track star, competed in a myriad of events including calf roping, ribbon roping and team roping with his father.
As much as he enjoyed the competition, it was the social aspects he remembers fondly.
“We were able to make a lot of friends from towns all over the state,” he said. “The rodeos were about once a month and gave us a chance to see our out of town friends.”
Hall and Jamison summon to mind that Ty Murray, then a resident of Glendale, frequented the rodeo finals in Payson. Murray went on to become a seven-time all-Around World Champion Cowboy with earnings of more than $3 million. Most recently, he appeared on Dancing with the Stars.
Chilson made friends with Murray during the pair’s AJRA days and looks back on Murray as being “really good in the bucking events, even when he was very young.”
Former Montonera Rosalee Herrera, once the organization’s president, has memories of Cody Custer competing on the the junior high circuit. Custer went on to become one of the country’s most famous professional bull riders.
“He was really good, but then again, we had a lot of really good (cowboys and cowgirls),” she said.
Another who frequented the Payson AJRA finals was Charlene Creach Hunt, now a mother of three, grandmother and a secretary at the Payson Police Department.
In 1970 and 1971, she was junior rodeo queen.
With as many as 100-plus kids from around the state competing in the AJRA finals, Montonera members were kept busy taking care of logistics.
“In those days there were no computers — we had to do all the schedules and day sheets by hand,” Jamison said.
“It was a lot of work, but we enjoyed doing it.”
Herrera remembers the Montoneras traveled the state appearing as a drill team in pro rodeos, but when it was time for the AJRA finals in Payson, they took time off the circuit to host the event.
“We were glad to do it,” she said. “I think we took a lot of pride in doing it.”
While the rodeo was all about competition, there were plenty of other good times including dances with live bands, which in those days was a real treat for the cowboys and cowgirls.
“We held them in the old rock building at Julia Randall School and a couple of times in the arena itself,” Jamison said.
In those days, the arena was located in Rumsey Park, just west of where the library is now located and where there is an artificial surface multi-purpose field.
Although Hall doesn’t harken back to the Payson-hosted junior rodeo as “the good old days,” she is among those chomping at the bit knowing the AJRA finals are returning to the Rim Country. She’s elated because she wants her two daughters, Brylee and Bryndee, to enjoy the hometown camaraderie, unforgettable times and spirit of competition she experienced as a fledgling cowgirl.
“We’ve missed having the finals in our hometown,” Hall said. “We are excited they are returning.”
For the upcoming finals, newly appointed Payson Event Center and equestrian coordinator Kaprice Bachtel is expecting about 200 entrants from around Arizona to enter.
The finals will mark the culmination of the 2010 AJRA association season that made earlier stops in St. Johns, Williams, Florence, Buckeye, Marana, Gilbert and Wilcox.
Events tip off at 1 p.m., Friday, June 18 with the second go-around set to begin at 8 a.m., Saturday, June 19 at PEC.
The awards ceremony is set for 7 p.m., Saturday.
Each event winner will receive a saddle. Also, all-around saddles will be awarded to high-point champions in each age group.
Spectators are welcome and there is no admission charge.