A small group of men fueled by a dedication to keep the pioneer spirit alive in the Rim Country has donated almost $20,000 to FFA and a Payson High School education program.
The Gila County Pioneers Committee doled out the contributions just prior to PHS graduation ceremonies.
The PHS FFA sponsor and agriculture instructor Jaydee Garner received $5,000, PHS woodshop teacher Richard Alvarez received a check for $5,000 and Young Public School FFA sponsor Sue Wade was awarded $10,000.
With the money Garner received, she awarded a $1,000 scholarship to Jed Ward and $500 each to Angie Lowery and Jessica James.
With the remainder of the money she will pay fees for students to travel to the FFA State Leadership Camp and to other conferences around the state.
Alvarez used most of his donation for scholarships giving $1,000 each to Cheyene Cherry, Cody Bossert, Angie Lowery and Trinity England.
All the students who received the scholarship money were graduating seniors
Wade did not award scholarships, opting instead to use the contributions to fund the Young FFA program, that, she admits, is mostly underfunded and in dire need of money.
“We are a very small town and it’s difficult to raise money,” Wade said. “Often our students can’t afford to go to FFA leadership conferences, so we pay their fees for them.
This year, some of the money paid Young High School FFA member Jonathan Young’s fees to participate on the Arizona State FFA choir and other students used donations to travel to Tucson for the state leadership camp.
“There are a lot of things we couldn’t do if we didn’t receive that money,” said Wade.
“We are so grateful.”
In 2009, six Young FFA members went to the National FFA convention.
convention. Prior to that, no Young student had attended it in six years.
Last year, Young school students and Wade wrote a thank you letter to the Gila Pioneers telling them how much the money meant to them.
“Words just don’t say enough for you to have given my students that opportunity,” FFA adviser Sue Wade wrote.
Alvarez and Garner echo her feelings, saying the money is sorely needed in their programs, which are suffering from the depressed economy and limited school funding.
So, what’s the story behind this Gila County Pioneer Committee that for the past five years has doled out generous donations to organizations and clubs in need?
The committee is a group of men, many of whom have pioneer roots and were once standout athletes at Payson High School, that have joined forces to take on a task once shouldered by the old Gila County Cowbelles organization.
That task is to pay a fitting tribute to Rim Country pioneers and at the same time raise money for good causes.
Over the years, the group has evolved — losing some members and picking up others.
There are, however, four founding members 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, traditionally held in September.
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 evening has blossomed into an event almost everyone looks forward to and enjoys.
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 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 keep alive the interest in cowboy culture and honoring Payson pioneers.
The events at annual celebrations include an old-fashioned cake and dessert auction, raffles, prize giveaways, dance and 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.”
Local musicians have volunteered to 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, prepares the dinner of barbecued beef and chicken.
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 the groups that have reaped the benefits of the proceeds are Payson FFA, Young FFA, Payson High woodshop classes and Tonto Basin schools.
Also, the committee built the fence around the Payson Pioneer 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.