From a population of approximately 125 when Arizona became a state in 1912, to over 16,000 today, Payson has grown a lot over the past 100 years. Particularly is the growth in the past 50 years when Payson went from a population of less than a 1,000 to what it is today. Let’s take a look at how we got here.
When World War II ended, there was just one recorded plat map in the Payson area, which was that of the town site recorded on March 24, 1930. When the town site was recorded in 1930, Payson was not incorporated and would not be for over 40 more years. The region consisted of scattered homesteads throughout, with ranches on that land. Things quickly started to change after World War II. Five plats in the northern part of Gila County were recorded in 1946: Bear Flats, Russell Addition, Pine Ridge Addition, O.R. Roberts Property, and Hathaway Addition. Growth was potentially on the horizon, though there was still a rugged dirt road that connected Payson with the Phoenix area. Soon though, that would change.
The Beeline Highway was gradually paved throughout the 1950s, which helped open up an era of growth. Suddenly, Zane Grey Country was far more accessible to the outside world. Even prior to the completion of paving, numerous subdivisions opened up and old homesteads started to change hands. Kohl’s Ranch was subdivided as were parts of the heart of Christopher Creek. And nearer the heart of Payson, a subdivision called Rodeo Ranches was platted in the early 1950s by Wilfred and Peggy Miller. Keep in mind that by 1960, Payson still had a population of just 814, according to an Arizona guide published by John Manning and Associates. Things had started to grow already, yet so much more growth was potentially ahead, especially with the paving of the Beeline Highway just having been completed in 1958.
What caused all of this growth? Well, for one thing Arizona’s population had started to explode. In the 1940 census, Arizona had a population of 499,261. In 1950 it had grown to 749,587. That was a relatively modest jump, but the 1950s were different. When 1960 arrived, Arizona’s population measured 1,302,161 — nearly a doubling of population from 1950. It was only natural that the Payson area, with all of its beauty, would start to grow, especially once the Beeline Highway was paved. The simple truth was that the Phoenix area was still darned hot in the middle of summer and that folks needed a place to escape. The area around Payson was a natural, especially for adults who had read about the scenery as kids in Zane Grey’s novels. The influence of the boy scouts also cannot be discounted as many of those same campers came back as adults.
The late 1950s brought some subdivisions that we know very well today. Payson Ranchos is an interesting one, particularly as far as location goes. When it was first developed, it was a couple miles north of Payson. It’s also worth remembering that none of these earlier developments initially had sewer — that wouldn’t be approved by voters until 1968, and even then it ended up in a quagmire of trouble for a time. The Payson area of the 1960s was very different from the Payson area that we know today.
There were developers and real estate agents who started to jump in during this era. Steve Hathaway, Preston Dooley and Barney Swartwood were amongst the developers. Bill Miller handled real estate for many subdivisions, including Rodeo Ranches, Country Club Estates and Country Club Vista.
Payson grew throughout the 1960s, rising to 1,787 in 1970. This rate of growth was greater than the state of Arizona, which rose to 1,775,399 in 1970. Still though, Payson was not yet incorporated as a town. That changed in 1973 when Payson incorporated as a town. The town had piped propane (which came in the late 1960s), sewer, and city government. In many respects, it also had a flagship development: Payson North.
The first unit of Payson North was located west of Highway 87 around Forest Road, was recorded with Gila County on June 3, 1968. First National Land Company is the developer of record, but in general it was a Barney Swartwood development and it was a game changer. It had a master plan, which laid out ideas for the development of the area north of Highway 260 and 87. Much of the Payson North units had common areas and street names that reflected an alpine theme. It would become anchored by a hotel that in its early years was called Swiss Village, though it is a Best Western today. Its streets are not laid out in a simple grid pattern like so many in the Phoenix area, but full of curves instead and weaved into the tall pines. The sheer area that these covered is significant and it helped set the stage for further growth.
The 1980 census measured Payson’s population as 5,068, more than doubling the 1,787 in 1970. Payson was well on its way at that point to becoming what we know today. Still though, troubles remained. With more people in the region came more traffic, particularly along the two-lane roadway connecting Payson with the Phoenix area. Traffic jams became more common and it became clear that the roadway had to be widened. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s this was gradually done, turning it into the four-lane highway that it is today. If not for this widening, Payson would surely be different.
A key area of development during the 1980s and 1990s is the area west of McLane and north of Longhorn. Payson West was the developer of much of this, with the initial plat for Woodland Meadows being recorded with Gila County on October 21, 1980. (It’s worth noting that many longtime Realtors still think of that area today simply as “Payson West.”) Other subdivisions such as Alpine Village and Golden Frontier, the latter of which is in the southeast quadrant of Payson, also came about during the 1980s. By 1990 the rate of growth in the area had slowed some, but was still going strong as the 1990 census measured Payson at 8,377. Keep in mind that a key element of land acquisition during this era was the land swap — developers purchasing land elsewhere that the forest service wanted to trade for, then trading it to the forest service for land they could develop. This is a topic that needs more research and is easily another article in and of itself.
Trailwood and Woodhill came about in the 1990s, further expanding the developments located west of McLane and in 2000 the rodeo grounds, which were for so long at Rumsey Park, were moved to the south end of town. Chaparral Pines and the Rim Golf Club were also developed in the 1990s and are historically noteworthy developments. Up to that point, Payson had just one golf course, the public course located at the junction of Green Valley Parkway and Vista. Chaparral Pines and Rim Golf Club increased that number to three and brought a different type of development to the region.
Obviously, things have since changed somewhat. While population has increased, it’s started to level off. The 2000 census placed Payson’s population at 13,620 and 2010 census placed it at 15,301. That was the smallest increase in population since 1960s. The real estate bubble put a lot of new developments on hold and many longtime Realtors miss “the good old days” and when one looked through promotional brochures for the developments of the 1980s and 1990s, it’s easy to understand their wistfulness. (Charitable organizations know this pain too as builders and Realtors used to be easy donors for fund-raising, but not so much anymore.) The truth is though, that eventually, things will likely come back and a new string of subdivision names will enter folks’ stream of consciousness and Payson will continue to evolve.
I’ve started to go through old files that relate to this era, which I think is a very important one. I’m always looking for pictures and you’d be surprised how few there are of the past 50 years. If you have information you’d be willing to share, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.