When I was in college at Arizona State University, a professor that I had put it best: Why are you here?
The thought worked then and it works now.
Why are you here? What brought you to Payson and the surrounding area? Moreover, what in Payson’s past laid the groundwork for you to be here right now?
In each of our pasts lay roots connecting us to Payson. It’s not just our decisions that have made us want to come to this beautiful place, but those of our ancestors, and those of people from this area. Payson and the surrounding area reflect Arizona — we have a lot of transplants and comparatively few native Arizonans, much less those that go back multiple generations.
That’s part of the reason why the “old families” are treated with a special reverence by local historians. They have been here and lived through many changes that the area has seen. They are unique and have been a constant through the years.
Early on, much of the basis of Payson lay with what was heard from former Army members. Newspapers of the 1870s show occasional references to Tonto Creek and certainly the few troops that were here told stories to people who told stories who told more stories, who told more stories.
Word eventually got out that there was potential here. It started with the hearty, and oh my, you had to be hearty in those early days. When Jinx Pyle and I hiked to the old House Mine last fall, one of the things that Jinx pointed out to me was the layout of the mine in the mountains. When that mine was discovered in 1877, there were numerous threats that you had to be on the lookout for. Ideal mining locations weren’t just where the minerals were, but where you could stay somewhat safe as well. The early pioneers of this area were hearty; very hearty.
Gradually, things progressed. Payson was formed about 1882 and the early promising mines gave way to more and more cattle. This helped bring some Texans in, who saw opportunities on the ranges of Arizona. For the first few years of its existence Payson was in Yavapai County, only becoming a part of Gila County in 1889.
You might as well have called it Outlaw County. Gila County was and still is very spread out. It was an easy place for outlaws to come and hide. Places like Preacher Canyon would’ve been perfect for an outlaw. Some of those outlaws, like Jim Herron, came here and were peaceful contributors. Others like Kid Thompson, not so much so. All of this helped contribute to the fiercely independent mentality of people here. When compared to people of the Phoenix area, there is something very different about us here.
Wide open spaces are definitely something that has helped draw people westward. Just about any area Realtor can tell you that they’ve had buyers tell them that they don’t want to be able to see their neighbor. How does this connect to family ancestry? There is a bit of a Midwestern influence here. What’s something that you see outside of the big cities there? Wide open spaces. This region is also great for gardening. Look in your past. I’ll bet you had some ancestors who were passionate about their gardens, perhaps a grandmother or two in particular. There is a tie there for many of us here. It’s not just coincidence that we’re here.
The 1920s were a “table setting” time in many ways for this area. Much of what occurred here during the 1920s would lead to future area growth. There was the author Zane Grey, who first came to the area in 1918. At the time the region was still very remote and considered backwards to some — at least to someone from the city like Zane Grey. (If you want proof of that attitude, read Under the Tonto Rim. It shows how he viewed the Haughts.) Next, the Boy Scouts made a pivotal decision. In the early 1920s they decided to put one of two camps in the state of Arizona here, near Kohl’s Ranch. It is unlikely that they knew at the time the impact that they would have. The scouting tradition in this region continues to this day and many people have fond childhood memories of this area. Thus, you ended up with two reasons for people to come here in the future: 1) They had read Zane Grey’s novels and fell in love with the scenery then, and then even more so once they saw it firsthand. 2) They have fond childhood memories of trips here and always wanted to have at least a second place to escape the Phoenix heat. All of this started a trend that would gain more and more momentum as time went on.
The events of the 1920s helped set up the region for the post World War II boom — almost. The roadways were still a little bit behind the times, making it a very rough trip from the Phoenix area. During the 1930s Harvey Granville Bush, a lumberman from Mesa, had helped get some improvements, hence the Bush Highway, but the roads were still mostly unpaved. In the 1950s that changed, as Maricopa County Supervisor Jim Hart led the charge to create a paved roadway from Mesa to Payson. In 1958 the fully paved Beeline Highway was completed, setting up the Payson area for growth. Now, so many who had come to the area as children could more easily make the trip, and additional scout camps opened as well. No longer was the area so isolated from the outside world, and with it, other changes ensued.
Payson followed much of the post war pattern of growth of Arizona, offering a cooler place than Phoenix for those who had moved from the Midwest. As mentioned earlier, it also offered some similarities to home. Yet it wasn’t just Midwesterners that found the area attractive. This region has always had its fair share of “California Backwash” dating back to before 1900. The Houston and Meadows families both came here from Visalia, Calif., after moving there from back east. And the late 1990s saw some similar occurrences. Much of the terrain of this area is similar to central California, and thus you have some of the appeal. It is not coincidence Californians have flocked to this area.
Why are all of us here at this point in time? There are plenty of reasons and looking closer at the area’s history as well as that of our own families help provide clues. We just have to look. And for the record, I’m here because of parents who chose to live in the Phoenix area after my Dad got out of the service, leading them to eventually want a second home in the mountains, a place of which I have very fond childhood memories, that led me to want to live here full time. The ability to grow a good garden and do some woodworking tie into my ancestors in Wisconsin who did the same thing. We are all here for a reason.