For the past five years, a handful of dedicated men, many of whom have pioneer roots and were once standout athletes at Payson High School, have joined forces to take on a task once shouldered by the former Cowbelles by paying a fitting tribute to Rim Country pioneers.
The group, which calls itself the Gila County Pioneers, has evolved over the years losing some members and picking up others.
In the group, however, there have been four constants who today are the organization’s officers. Tony McDaniel is president, Ronnie McDaniel holds down the office of vice president, Kelly Owens sits in the secretary chair and Duke Wilbanks is historian.
Since the inception of the Pioneers, they have gathered midway through each summer at the Star Valley home of Roy George Haught where they diligently plan and prepare the annual Gila County Pioneers Barbecue Dinner and Dance.
The fifth annual gala will be held from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m. Sept. 25 in the Tonto Apache gymnasium.
Ronnie McDaniel says the main focus of the event is “to honor the pioneers who 60 years ago were the backbone of Payson.”
When the first celebration was held in 2006, the Pioneers called it an overwhelming success and promised they would make it bigger and better each year.
True to their word, the festive evenings have blossomed into an event almost everyone looks forward to and enjoys — especially the pioneers being honored.
In planning the evening, the organizing committee has a goal of making the event much like the socials held around the Rim Country decades ago.
“Like we used to go to as kids,” Ronnie McDaniel said. “We all remember those very well — they are some of our best memories.”
For 23 years, the former Tonto Cowbelles hosted the events by honoring old-timers at annual dances and dinners. But, the Cowbelles disbanded in 2000.
Then-president Dixie Jones said at the time, “there doesn’t seem to be much interest anymore. Not that many people even own cattle anymore.”
The Gila County Pioneers organizing committee stepped in to be the group to keep alive the interest in cowboy culture and honoring Payson pioneers.
The events at the upcoming celebration will include an old-fashioned cake and dessert auction, raffles, prize giveaways, dance and a dinner.
The “pastry auctions” are particularly fun and profitable.
“Some of the pies and cakes have sold for over $100 in past years,” said Haught. “It’s a fun way to raise money and all the items are homemade and taste great.”
A butchered hog and beef will be among the raffles at the dinner dance. Raffle tickets are $5 each.
Local musicians including the Taylor Hale Band and Don and Ron Gibson will provide music for the dances. Most often the music features a mix of country western tunes and waltzes.
“There will be plenty of dancing going on,” Wilbanks said.
Haught, who is widely regarded as one of the finest cowboy cooks in the Rim Country, will prepare the dinner of barbecued beef and chicken. Side dishes will include cowboy beans, coleslaw and rolls.
Wilbanks has called the meal, “an elbow lickin’ dinner.”
When the Pioneers group was founded, it was decided all the profits would be donated to local, worthwhile causes with links to our frontier culture.
Among those groups who have reaped the benefits of the proceeds are Payson FFA, Young FFA, Payson High wood shop classes, and Tonto Basin schools.
Last year, Young school students wrote a thank you letter to the Gila Pioneers telling them how much the money meant to them.
They wrote that some of it was used to send students to state FFA leadership camps — fees that normally had to be footed by parents.
Also, FFA affiliation fees were paid, awards for outstanding students were purchased, student fees to mini camps were paid, and six members went to the 2009 National FFA Convention.
No Young student had attended it in the past six years.
“Words just don’t say enough for you to have given my students that opportunity,” FFA adviser Sue Wade wrote.
Also, the committee built the fence around the Pioneer Payson Cemetery with proceeds from the evening.
In addition to the dinner-dances benefiting worthwhile causes, they also provide newcomers and Johnny-come-latelies a glimpse of what life was like decades ago in Payson.
Tickets, priced at $10 per person (children are free), are available from any committee member, at the door or may be purchased a the Roundup at 708 N. Beeline or at the Payson Public Library in Rumsey Park.