These days, most folks in Payson pretty much ignore the rodeo. That’s a shame — and a great loss to the folks who don’t show up.
After all, what’s the sense of living in Payson, if you can’t savor the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo, which every year connects us to the taproot of this town?
That first rodeo was the brainchild of a bunch of bored cowboys killing time before the fall roundup to brush all the cattle out of the folds and crevices of Rim Country to fatten up on the great, grassy meadows that made Payson a natural meeting place.
Most accounts credit the irrepressible Charlie Meadows with pushing the idea in 1884, with help from legendary riders and ranchers like John Collins Chilson.
So they staged the first rodeo in Pieper’s Meadow, which would one day become the town’s economically vital sawmill and now provides a home for the theaters where the heirs of those tough cow hands can go enjoy fare like “Cowboys and Aliens.”
That first, raucous rodeo took place in a remote little mountain town just two years after the lethal drama of the Battle of Big Dry Wash on the Rim and two years before Geronimo’s surrender in southeast Arizona brought the generations-long tragedy of the Apache wars to a close.
In fact, Charlie Meadows lost his father and brother during an Indian raid up the East Verde River. He and his brother returned to their ranch near Whispering Pines to try to make a go of it, after moving his mother and younger siblings down to the relative safety of Phoenix.
Early rodeos were later staged on Main Street, with the porches of the businesses for grandstands. Cowboys who lived in the saddle and loved nothing better than races, gambling and bragging turned the rodeo into a week-long party, which drew isolated ranch families from all over Rim Country to celebrate surviving for another year. They applauded dancing bears, pulled the heads off buried chickens at a full gallop, crashed through backyard fences on runaway horses, staged sack races, climbed poles, and slid off greased pigs.
The gleeful spectators delighted in the resurrection of friends they’d thought dead, flirted, married, brawled, took up collections, wagered small fortunes, fell down drunk, got up parties to build neighbors’ barns.
The whole history of the West — and of Rim Country — has played out in the annual return of the rodeo, reassuring as the summer rains and the August swarms of hummingbirds down by the river.
Of course, times change. Can’t be helped.
So the town grew.
The Apaches who fought so hard to hold onto the places they held sacred struggled and fell and dwindled. They no longer grow corn in the meadow where Charlie and the boys staged the first rodeo. But then again, the Tonto Apache Tribe does run the casino just across the way, to welcome all those rodeo fans into town. Heck, later this summer Payson will for the first time host the annual Indian Rodeo, whose riders perfected their skills on the free-wheeling, reservation rodeos Charlie Meadows would instantly recognize.
The sawmill came, supported the town, dwindled and died away, leaving Payson folks to find some other scramble to earn a living. But these days, forest managers hope they can reinvent the timber industry to live on small trees and so once again protect and nurture towns like Payson.
The whole nation turned the Western wilderness into the sunbelt. We industrialized, won two world wars, kept heart through a depression and a dust bowl and a thousand setbacks besides. And through all that, have remained as tough and free and hard working as Charlie Meadows. In so doing, we have remained perhaps the world’s best, brightest hope at a time when people elsewhere still must confront tanks with nothing in their hands but hope and that ancient human yearning for freedom.
And through it all, the rodeo has returned every August, come rain, come sun, come thunder, come drought. So they still chase down the calves, face down the bulls and somehow convince that horse to make every pivot around every barrel.
So head on down to the arena. You live here now: It’s your birthright.
They’ve got a seat for you in the grandstand of history.