The sagging fortunes of the recently revived Sawdust Festival could be receiving a much-needed boost with the expansion of the annual competition to include ATV trail rides, mountain bike races, archery tournaments, a trail run, horseshoe tournament and a Dutch oven cook off.
For decades, the original Payson Sawdust Festival — which was begun more than 30 years ago — was a big draw, attracting throngs of fans and onlookers from around the state to the old rodeo grounds located near where the Rumsey Park library and multipurpose field are now located.
But after the rustic rodeo grounds were shut down and the festival moved to the Payson Event Center, the event lost most of its luster and was discontinued in the early 1990s.
After a 16-year hiatus, a new, improved and resurrected festival was held in 2009 at PEC.
It, however, enjoyed only limited success with few fans filling the stands and only 43 contestants entered.
Some attributed the lack of interest to the vanishing Rim Country logging industry, the rains that drenched the events on that Memorial Day weekend, lingering economic depression and PEC’s lack of the pastoral tall timber ambience that graced the old rodeo grounds.
Those who sponsored the revived festival, Cameron Davis and his employees at the Town of Payson Department of Parks, Recreation and Economic Development, decided to shift gears and pump up the weekend by adding games, tournaments, races, rides and distance runs that would be attractive to a wider swath of the population.
“We sat down with our major sponsors and discussed a vision of what this could become,” said Davis. “Obviously, we wanted it to appeal to a more diverse group, but still be built around some of the traditions we have up here.”
Following the discussions with sponsors, which include Home Depot, Stihl, Cabelas and others, Davis assembled his town employees to begin planning the new games.
“We settled on the eight events that reflected life in the mountains,” said Davis.
In scheduling the competitions, Davis and his group contacted several organizations to help out, including the Dutch Oven Society of Arizona, the Arizona State Horseshoe Pitchers Association and others.
With feedback from those groups and brainstorming among P&R employees, plans were laid to morph the Sawdust Festival into the Mountain High Games.
The games kick off from 3 p.m. to 5 p.m. on opening day, June 3, with registration for all events.
Later that evening, open archery range shooting and an ATV trail ride will be held.
At 9 p.m., a country music concert and dance will be held at the historic Oxbow Saloon on Main Street.
Performing will be Nashville recording artist Candyce, who recently released the album “Kickin’ up Dust.”
She will also perform the following evening, June 4, in a summer concert series at Green Valley Park. That program is set to begin at 7 p.m.
Following the concert, about 9 p.m., another dance will be held at the Oxbow, this time featuring the Landon Shill group that appears frequently at East Valley watering holes playing Americana and country rock music.
The festival kicks off at 8 a.m. that Saturday with an ATV trail ride and continues with adult and kids mountain bike races, a 5K trail run, 3D archery tournament, blind draw horseshoe contest, Dutch oven cooking competition, Loggers Sawdust Festival and at 5 p.m. the ATV rodeo.
The rodeo includes several clever events including ATV bowling grocery race, hide race and a hot shot competition in which riders are given a large water gun and must navigate a course shooting a ping pong ball off strategically placed cones.
The adult bike race could mark a return to the Mayor’s Cup of yesteryear.
Currently, Davis and others, including local mountain biking guru Dan Basinski, are studying ways to link the upcoming race to the Cup races that were popular for so many years.
The final day
The games resume at 7 a.m., Sunday, June 5 with an ATV trail ride.
From 9 a.m. to 10 a.m. the finals of the Loggers Sawdust Festival and open archery range shooting will be held.
Davis expects the archery competition to draw several locals and also be among the most popular events.
“We are anticipating more than 100 will enter,” he said.
At noon, the games wrap up with the Sawdust Festival Awards Ceremony and the awarding of cash and prizes.
In planning the games, Davis is emphasizing that while they will draw some professional and seasoned competitors, they are also open to novices.
“Beginners and amateurs are welcome,” he said, explaining various skill levels can be accommodated because most events feature age/ability categories. In the ATV ride, there are three age divisions — 8-12 years, 13-15 years and adult, plus ATV classifications.