Six years ago a group of men who once starred in multiple sports at Payson High School gathered in Roy Haught’s Star Valley home to ponder their concerns over the loss of the pioneer or “cowboy” culture in the Rim Country.
A common thread running through the discussions was that the tradition of annually paying a fitting tribute to local pioneers had fallen by the wayside mostly because the Tonto Cowbelles had disbanded.
It was the Cowbelles who for 23 years hosted an annual tribute that included a deep-pit cooked beef dinner, dance, raffles and giveaways.
The Cowbelles disbanded in 2000 with then-president Dixie Jones saying, “There doesn’t seem to be much interest anymore. Not that many people even own cattle anymore.”
Ronnie McDaniel, a former Gila County sheriff’s officer, ex-Payson justice of the peace and a former PHS basketball star, who has had his number retired, was among those men in Haught’s home expressing their concerns over the downfall of local traditions.
He remembers the tributes well.
“They are some of our best memories,” he said. “They honored those who 60 years ago were the backbone of Payson.”
The concerns of the group prompted the men to take action and form a committee, which they called the Gila County Pioneers, to take over the Cowbelles tradition and once again host a yearly tribute to those who helped settle the Rim Country.
Over the years the group has transitioned, losing some members and picking up others.
In the committee, however, there have been five constants that 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 and Haught serve as historians.
In all, there are now 10 Pioneer members.
One day a week each summer, the committee gathers at Haught’s home to diligently plan and prepare the annual Gila County Pioneers Barbecue Dinner and Dance.
Their most recent meetings were to plan the sixth annual gala, which will be held from 3 p.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 24 in the Tonto Apache gymnasium
“Admission is only $10 for an old-fashioned barbecue dinner with all the trimmings, a dance and auction,” said Wilbanks.
Don and Ron Gibson will provide the dance music and $5 raffle tickets will be sold for a chance at winning a butchered hog or whole beef.
Wilbanks points out there is a common misconception that the festivities are for pioneers only. “We have people who say, ‘I’m not going, I’m not a pioneer.’ But it’s for everyone and we invite all to come out and have a good time,” he said.
Pioneer committee members tout the evening as providing a glimpse of what life was like decades ago in Payson. Among the biggest draws is the old-fashioned cake and pastry auction that were a huge part of the early celebrations hosted by the Cowbelles.
“Some of the pies and cakes 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.”
The scrumptious barbecue, prepared by Haught, is also a special treat. Side dishes will include cowboy beans, coleslaw and rolls. Wilbanks calls the meal, “an elbow lickin’ dinner.”
Unique this year — the PHS graduating classes of 1970, 1971 and 1972 have been issued a special invitation because they are also planning a reunion on Sept. 24. The group’s plans are to hold their reunion in the afternoon hours and then attend the Pioneer celebration.
Most importantly — is all the profits benefit local worthwhile causes. Last fall, 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. The funds either benefited students directly through scholarships at Payson High School or by going into Young FFA program.
“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.”
Without the Pioneer donations, Wade said, Young’s FFA program would flounder.
The committee also used some of the profits last year to build a fence around the Payson Pioneer Cemetery.
Dinner tickets are available at the Payson Roundup, Payson Public Library, SemStream and the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce.