Celebrating Our Pioneer Roots

Ronnie McDaniel is one of the founders of the Gila County Pioneers, which hosts the annual Pioneer Dinner, designed to keep Rim Country traditions alive.

Ronnie McDaniel is one of the founders of the Gila County Pioneers, which hosts the annual Pioneer Dinner, designed to keep Rim Country traditions alive. Photo by Andy Towle. |

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An admirable character thread, camaraderie and a deep respect for tradition, seemingly unites athletes and cowboys.

Those qualities are what prompted a group of former Payson High School sports stars, who are also members of Gila County pioneering families, to gather six years ago in Roy Haught’s Star Valley home to ponder their concerns over the loss of the pioneer or “cowboy” culture in the Rim Country.

As the discussion unfolded, most expressed their concerns that the tradition of annually paying a fitting tribute to local pioneers had fallen by the wayside. The loss occurred 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 now call 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 about 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 seventh annual gala, which will begin at 3 p.m., Saturday, Sept. 29 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. Children under 5 eat free.

Also, $5 raffle tickets will be sold for a chance at winning a butchered and wrapped whole hog or whole beef.

Another sure to be popular raffle will have as a prize a handmade standing free bar crafted by PHS teacher Richard Alvarez’s woodshop class. It comes with two custom handmade stools by Wes Chapman.

New this year is a raffle for a Zane Grey Golden Boy lever action .22-caliber rifle with octagon barrel.

Pioneer son honored

At the upcoming celebration, a longtime supporter of the dinner, Ed Childers, will be honored. Childers was once an executive assistant to U.S. Department of Interior Secretary Stewart Udall and later a Payson-area historian, Realtor, caterer and cowboy. He died in June and was interned in the Payson Pioneer Cemetery.

Celebration for all

A common misconception committee members have picked up is that the celebration is 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. “We want people to come out and meet the pioneers.”

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.”

This year, the committee is asking all pioneer families to make their favorite pie, cake or pastry for the auction.

The scrumptious barbecue, prepared by Haught, is also a special treat.

Side dishes will include Albert Hunt’s cowboy beans, coleslaw and rolls. Wilbanks calls the meal, “an elbow lickin’ dinner.”

Helping out

Most important about the evening, the evening is all the profits benefit local worthwhile causes.

Last year’s dinner raised $19,500, much of which went to assist the Rim Country’s young people.

In May, Payson High School FFA sponsor and agriculture instructor Jadee Rohner 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 Rohner 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 Cheyenne Cherry, Cody Bossert, Angie Lowery and Trinity England.

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.”

Without the Pioneer donations, Wade said, Young’s FFA program would flounder.

Fencing the cemetery

The committee also used some of the profits a few years ago to build a fence around the Payson Pioneer Cemetery.

It’s obvious the dinner celebration is for a great two-fold cause — to honor pioneers and lend a helping hand to local youth.

So, drop by offices of the Payson Roundup, Arizona Credit Union or the Rim Country Regional Chamber of Commerce and purchase your dinner and raffle tickets.

It’ll be an evening you won’t soon forget.

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