Rock Building Renovation Preserves Memories

Old school gym was community gathering place

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When historian Patricia (Gail) Hearne heard former Payson Unified School District Superintendent Casey O’Brien planned on saving the old Julia Randall Rock Building, she was ecstatic.

“Casey O’Brien had it remodeled instead of demolished,” she said to a Library Friends of Payson audience.

She decided to watch the remodel, take pictures and collect photos and memorabilia from the building’s past. Hearne presented her research at a meeting in the Payson Library.

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Photo courtesy of Northern Gila County Historical Society

The Rock Building at the end of Main Street as it appeared circa 1960.

The Rock Building sits next to the new Julia Randall School off of Main Street. It now houses the district administration offices.

However, from 1939 until 2009, the building contained the classrooms, gymnasium and stage that served the children of Payson.

New Deal funds and programs built the historic structure.

Hearne said in 1937, the Federal government allocated $17,055 to build the rock schoolhouse through the Works Progress Administration (WPA). An additional $5,877 from local sponsors guaranteed the building would be completed.

“Local men were hired to build the rock building, including Columbus ‘Boy’ Haught (father of Jr. Haught); Grady Harrison (father of Audrey Harrison); Walter Haught (father of Pat Haught Cline); and Andrew Ogilvie (father of Anna Mae Ogilvie Deming),” said Hearne.

The rocks that make up the walls of the building were chiseled by hand from stones dug out of a quarry located south of town where the current Tonto Apache Market now stands. The stonemason was John Hughes, said Hearne.

The architect for the project, Vere O. Wallingford (1876-1944) of Phoenix, not only designed the Payson rock building but also designed an exact replica for Young. Unfortunately that building burned down, said Hearne.

In February 1939, construction finished and fifth- through 12th-grade students transferred their books and supplies from the nearby wooden schoolhouse into the rock building.

“These students included Fern Spears, Pat Haught Cline and C.B. Jr. Haught,” said Hearne.

Soon after classes started, a tradition of posing classes and teams on the steps that lead out to Main Street started.

Jr. Haught was a freshman when he moved into the rock building. By the time of his senior year, he served as the captain of the basketball team. The team became the regional champions, said Hearne.

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Photo courtesy of Pearline Haught

It was tradition for championship teams to pose on the steps of the Rock Building.

Teams played in the gymnasium, which now houses the board meeting room.

“It was a properly sized basketball court — there was little space between the court and the wall,” said former student Fern Spears. “We had to be careful to keep our feet back when we sat on the sidelines in folding chairs.”

The rock building gym was also used for a variety of community events besides basketball games such as plays, quilt displays, Christmas parties, square dancing and funeral gatherings, said Hearne.

The building was officially named Julia Randall Elementary School in 1969, the year Miss Randall (1899-1990) retired from the Payson School District. Her teaching career spanned 50 years in Gila County — 45 of them in Payson, said Hearne.

A fellow teacher of Randall’s, Olive Fletcher, attended both Miss Randall’s retirement party and Hearne’s presentation.

She said when they announced the name change at the retirement party Miss Randall said, “I will never believe it!”

Fletcher said when the historical society donated a sign with Randall’s name on it, she finally believed.

During the remodel, Hearne and some former teachers toured the basement to look for a reported time capsule.

“We never found it,” said Hearne.

They did find an old desk and two doors, one a classroom door the other a basement door. Hearne had the historical society set aside the objects to display at the museum.

Hearne finished up her presentation with two pictures — one of the last day of school and the other of the administration hallway now.

She hopes to fill the empty walls with historical pictures of the old rock building.

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