On a high ridge overlooking Payson, clues to a gripping mystery lie scattered — mostly hidden from view.
But on Saturday as the highlight of its big event of the year, the Rim Country Archaeological Society will offer a rare tour of one of Payson’s least-known, but most mysterious of treasures.
The Risser Ranch Ruins on a ridge in Alpine Heights once housed a bustling village, including a ridge-top fortress with about 50 rooms. But after nearly living for 150 years in the thriving farming village, its residents simply vanished — leaving behind a wealth of artifacts and unanswered questions.
The Archaeological Society bought the lot to protect one of the most important portions of that village, which ancient people built in about A.D. 1150 and abandoned by about 1300, according to Sandy Carson, who will lead a tour of these lost ruins as the highlight of the Saturday grand event.
The Rim Country Archaeological Society each year hosts the Annual Native American and Southwest Fest, starting at 10 a.m. Saturday at the Church of the Holy Nativity at 1414 Easy St. in Payson.
Members will serve up a potluck based on Native American foods and recipes, with a dash of southwestern spice. The event will also include displays of artifacts, including tools and pottery found among the Risser Ranch Ruins, artifacts from the Goat Camp Ruins and a display of authentic Kachinas.
Historian and guide from the Four Corners area, Harvey Leake will give a talk about the prehistory of the region.
Then, Carson will lead a car-pooled tour of the Risser Ranch Ruins, which were occupied at roughly the same time as the much better known Shoofly Ruins alongside Houston Mesa Road.
Carson, a librarian who moved to Payson seven years ago and found herself captivated by the history of the ancient civilizations that once flourished here, said, “I think people are oblivious to that history. In 1910, the population of Payson was 86 in town — and 200 in the area. But go back to 1150 AD and you have a couple thousand people living here. That kind of blows people’s minds when they hear it. I just think it’s extremely fascinating that the history in this area goes back so far.”
The Risser Ranch village was one of three major villages in the area, including Shoofly. People had hunted and gathered naturally growing foods here for thousands of years before this group of farmers settled in year-round. They grew corn, squash and beans, sometimes on stream terraces and often with the help of an ingenious system of check dams to capture rainfall and runoff.
Rim Country occupied a crucial transition zone between the densely settled Hohokam settlements in the Valley, the Salado people living along the Salt River in the Tonto Basin and the Sinagua settlements of Sedona and Flagstaff. Rim Country lay along major trade routes linking people living in California, New Mexico, Colorado and even Mexico. So the people living here — variously referred to as the Mogollon of Central Arizona Tradition — picked up cultural traits from many regions.
Carson said the Risser Ranch Ruins have several distinctive features, including some oversized rooms and its striking, ridgetop location — far above the most likely farming areas.
Several archaeologists have developed a theory to explain why after hundreds of years of living alongside their farmland, the people living in Rim Country and the Verde Valley began building more elaborate and easily defended settlements. Those archaeologists speculate that perhaps the mountain people had to defend themselves against Hohokam raiding parties from the Valley.
Carson said the research she’s read notes that the abandonment of the settlements around Payson coincided with a severe, regional, 30-year drought. People abandoned their homes here more than 100 years before the irrigation based civilizations of the Hohokam and Sinagua collapsed.
We’re now in the midst of a decades-long drought more severe than the one in the 1200s.