The Beeline Highway through Payson was nothing spectacular by today’s standards (see road in top left part of photo above), but it made a world of difference in travel time.
The 1950s were a period of growth and change in the Payson region that would lay the groundwork for much more future growth. The era is generally considered a good one in America’s history. Harry Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower were presidents and Dan Garvey, Howard Pyle, Ernest McFarland and Paul Fannin were Arizona governors during that period. Here’s a look at the 1950s in Payson.
After World War II ended in 1945, the American obsession with the automobile began to kick into high gear. Places that were once very far off became closer, particularly as roads improved. People wanted to get back to nature and this made the Payson region very appealing. It was a very small place back then, with well under 1,000 people and probably less than 500. In 1950 it was still more than five hours to get to Payson from Phoenix. By the end of the decade, that time had at least been cut in half as the Beeline Highway was completed. While the possibility of a highway had been talked about for a while, it made a crucial step forward in the late part of 1950 as this clip from a Nov. 15, 1950 Tucson Daily Citizen article shows.
“Phoenix, Nov. 15, (UP) - The Phoenix-Payson beeline highway was nearer reality today after the forest highway board approved a $2,270,000 construction program for the new road.
“The board approved construction of 20 miles of the route, which will reduce the distance from Phoenix to Payson to 97 miles from the present 130. The highway is part of a program to make state recreational areas near Payson easily accessible to central Arizonians.”
This was a pivotal first step and led folks to begin to invest in the region knowing that it would soon have a mainline connection to more populated areas. By the mid-1950s a variety of subdivisions had been put in or were planned. People like Steve Hathaway, Bill Miller and Preston Dooley played a role in this with subdivisions like Payson Woodlands, Oak Terrace and Rodeo Ranches. The weather was a draw for this region, but there was also a mythical aspect as this December 23, 1950 Tucson Daily Citizen clip shows.
“Among the places in Arizona replete with memories of six-guns, feuds and bold men, is the Tonto Basin country. The villages of Pine and Payson, and the surrounding mountain forests are an ideal setting for the legends of early days which fill them, while Pleasant Valley to the east, is famous as the locale of the bloodiest of all range wars.
“Tonto Basin and its overhanging Mogollon Rim are known wherever books are read, and visitors find this comparatively virgin country a delightful and hospitable resort region.”
One of the entities that faced challenges in the evolving Payson area was the Forest Service. A 1951 report obtained from the National Archives in Denver, Colo. shows that this was something that they were very aware of and concerned about.
“Heavy construction work is now under way on the Mazatzal sector of the Bush Highway and early black-topping of the road appears assured. With realignment and paving of this highway, Phoenix and the rest of the lower valley will soon have a vastly improved route up into the rim country to enjoy the cool climate afforded there. Particularly in the pine type, rapidly expanding demands may be expected to develop for public camp(ing) and picnic use as well as summer home units. These demands will come whether or not the Forest Service has any funds with which to make needed developments. We may confidently look forward to these demands creating quite a problem in public use pressures and an adroitly conducted informational program might not be amiss.”
The concept of summer home subdivisions is a key one. At the time of this Forest Service report, two summer home subdivisions had been placed in the region: See Canyon and Washington Park. It would not be long until others were put in. A lot of the old homesteads had not yet been developed and Payson’s footprint was still very small: McLane and Main was the heart of town and would be for quite some time. Summer home subdivisions consisted of land leased for a yearly fee, and were typically closed during the winter months. Many of these original summer home subdivisions have since been converted to privately owned land through land exchanges.
Paysonites dealt with the typical concerns of small-town America during this era. There was the Korean War between 1950 and 1953, which drew some troops from Payson. Even after that conflict ended, many locals would enter the military. It was still a small town whose comings and goings were reported in a regular correspondence column in The Arizona Republic written by Gladys Meredith. As Payson saw a boost in growth during the 1950s, her husband T.L. Meredith built many homes.
Camp Geronimo was moved in 1956 to its current site, the former Spade Ranch. The former site would be turned into a camping area, and as the number of visitors continued to grow, such facilities were clearly needed. Forest Service figures provided in a June 12, 1955 article in The Arizona Republic were as follows: 275 hunters, 1,000 fishermen, 101,000 campers or picnickers. The last number had supposedly doubled during the prior five years. A May 14, 1956 article in The Arizona Republic stated that, “Last year, 754,560 visitors enjoyed the many outdoor activities that have been made available on this 2,900,000-acre playground.” As the road between Phoenix and Payson improved, the region saw more and more visitors.
Payson’s annual rodeo continued to gain in popularity and timber was still big industry with the Owens Brothers leading the way. The paving of the Beeline Highway was completed in 1958 and the decade saw much growth, though Payson’s population was still less than 1,000 by the time 1960 arrived. The stage was set though for more growth.