Imagine Payson an undeveloped, sawmill town with only a couple buildings along Main Street. This is the vivid of picture Gail Hern, local speaker, writer and educator, offered the audience at a special presentation by the Historical Society last week.
“Payson is in the middle of the world’s largest stand of ponderosa pines,” explained Hern as she described the history of sawmills in the Rim Country.
“The sawmill produced more than two million board-feet a year,” recalled Ella Lee Owens, wife of Keith Owens and sawmill worker.
The first portable sawmills were set up in the late 1800s, said Hern, who gathered information and pictures from local residents such as Ella Lee Owens and Betty-Sue Fletcher Conway. Later, other sawmills were established including the Henry Haught Sawmill in Tonto Village on the Control Road (1920s-1945) and the John Henry Fletcher Standage Sawmill (1950-1952). Many local residents worked at those mills — or descended from people who did.
The better-known Owens Bros. Lumber sawmill operated in several locations, beginning in 1935, before coming to Payson in the 1950s. The Sawmill Theatres and the surrounding Main Street area stand where the mill once operated — and the theater has several historic photos of the operations on which the region’s economy once depended, said Hern.
Keith and “Kerm” Owens started their sawmill business in their parents’ backyard in the 1930s. They opened the mill in Payson shortly after the mill at Diamond Point burned in 1951.
Keith Owens, 1912-1957, was a strong supporter of young people and the proprietor of the lumber business. Kerm Owens, 1914-1992, loved to work at the sawmill. The Owens brothers were among the first to produce a slogan for their company, “Where Your Home Begins.”
The sawmill required a variety of workers to perform the whole process of cutting the lumber, transporting it to the mill, processing it and trucking it to the desired location. The laborers included the fallers, who fell the trees; the stackers; and sawers, who decided where the logs were cut. In several instances, whole families worked in the lumber business as did many Apache workers.
The Owens also owned a nearby gas station and retail store. As children, Ella Lee Owens and Conway explained that they loved to play in the sawdust and in the log pond, where the logs were first cleaned of dirt and insects, Hern said.
Owens Bros. Lumber operated into the late 1950s when they sold the mill to Whiting and Kutch, who renamed it the Kaibab (sawmill). The Kaibab operated until May 7, 1993 when they were forced to close due to lack of contracts. A century of logging had removed most of the big, high-profit trees and legal disputes centered on forest health and endangered species had snarled the contracting process. The mills weren’t set up to make a profit on the much smaller, second-growth trees that now clogged the forest.
The sound of the original sawmill whistle still brings back memories for many local residents of the past when Payson used to be a thriving sawmill town. We can surely look back and remember the Payson forefathers whose pioneering helped to forge the town we know today, Hern concluded.