There are a couple of different stories about how the Payson Old Time Fiddle Festival was founded.
As Jerry Floyd remembers it, it came about from impromptu jam sessions at the clubhouse at the KOA Campground on Highway 260, which was originally built by his parents, J.W. and Vertilee Floyd.
“Mom would hear music coming from the campsites and went to investigate. Then she invited the musicians to come up to the building (club house) and play. Sometimes they’d play inside if the weather was bad, other times they’d play on the porch,” he said in an interview with the Roundup this week.
Nelson Beck, who is coordinating this year’s event for the Payson Parks, Recreation and Tourism Department, said the contest was organized by Vertilee Floyd as a way to help fill up the campground and bring customers to area motels and businesses. “She was a pioneer in Payson economic development,” Beck said of Floyd.
Son Jerry agreed. “She was always interested in doing things to promote the town and bring people here and help the businesses.”
Mrs. Floyd told a different version to the Roundup back in 1996. While she chaired the Rim Country’s celebration of old-time fiddling for many years, she said she was not its founder.
“The fiddle contest was a dream of local fiddlers: D.C. Ashby, Don Stephenson and fiddling brothers, Githon and Clinton Reid,” Floyd said in the article.
“Mr. Ashby, age 80-plus, and Don attended a C of C (chamber of commerce) board meeting at the old Open Range Cafe at the south end of town. After hearing Mr. Ashby explain how a fiddle contest would be a good addition to the annual Fall Festival, the board approved his plan and gave him $80 for expenses and prize money.”
The first fiddlers contest in 1970 was an old-fashioned community event. Local clubs and organizations had booths and sold specialty items. Each high school class set up a carnival-type activity and the 4-H and Scout groups also participated. Homemakers from around town provided the food — sandwiches, cookies and cakes.
That first event was held at what was called the “park” at the corner of Main Street and Beeline Highway, where the chamber and county buildings now stand. The chamber building was tiny — it had electricity, but no plumbing, Floyd said. So, Roy Creach, who owned the Richfield Station across the street, made his facilities available.
She said among the competitors in that first contest were the Reid brothers and Stephenson. Jody Sixkiller, her husband, Dudley Whitlock and legendary Arizona fiddler Lyman Keeling of Mesa, also participated. Dr. James Griffith, director of the Southwest Folklore Center at the University of Arizona, brought his banjo, Payson resident Mac Bevell brought his guitar, and Pat Watson played a little portable piano in the back of a 3/4-ton truck and her son, Tim, played the spoons.
Floyd said in 1974 the contest would become an official U.S. Bicentennial event and the official Arizona State Championship contest. Floyd turned the reins of the contest over to Roy Sandoval in late 2001, shortly before her death in the spring of 2002. Sandoval coordinated the festival for several years. The town of Payson now presents it.
Over the years the Old Time Fiddle Festival has had many homes. While the first event was presented at the northwest corner of Beeline and Main, it has also been held at Rumsey Park, at the Houston Mesa Horse Camp, south of Main Street, and even at the Star Valley Baptist Church one year.
“The year it was held at the church was the year we almost lost it,” said Chris Floyd, Jerry’s wife, who has kept scores at the festival for at least 20 years.
She said that was the year the chamber decided it didn’t want to put it on anymore, but Floyd would not let it go. Even after she had officially turned the reins over to Roy Sandoval in 2001, she continued to work on it.
Among the other early contributors to the festival were Sandra Schoup and Dorothy Donovan Wagner, according to the Floyds. Wagner arranged to have storytellers and games for children at the early festivals, they said, and Schoup went around the state to other contests to promote the Payson event.
This year, in addition to celebrating its 41st anniversary and being the state championship contest, the Old Time Fiddle Festival is also an official Arizona Centennial Event.
See details about the contest, Saturday and Sunday, Sept. 24 and Sept. 25, in the accompanying story, along with information about the opening Old Time Opry concert on Friday, Sept. 23.