Town historians, Jinx Pyle and Jayne Peace Pyle, wrote in their book Rodeo 101 that “Payson was founded in a pine-fringed valley below the Mogollon Rim. The town site was laid out by James C. Callaghan, the local blacksmith, and John C. Hise, a local cattle rancher. The survey was completed in 1882 when the population was 42. Hise and Callaghan had no trouble making it official, as Hise was the Surveyor General for Arizona – so appointed by President Grover Cleveland. Two years later Payson, Arizona began a train of annual rodeos that would stretch without interruption through the two world wars and into all or part of three centuries.”
Payson Arizona History
“Before Payson was established as a townsite, it was called Green Valley. Bill St. John settled four miles south of Green Valley in 1978. When asked why he ran goats, he told Lewis Pyle, ‘Well, I used to have a little herd of milk cows and a few head of range cows, but I could never keep them from drifting into Green Valley and those damn cowboys were always roping them, so I went to goats.’ St. John further told Lewis Pyle that cattle from all over the country just seemed to migrate into Green Valley and it was the primary hold up grounds (roundup camp) in the area, not only because of its central location to the local ranches, but also because, ‘the water and grass in Green Valley just seemed to lure the cattle in.”
“The mountain town of Payson, Arizona has often been omitted from articles pursuant to the origins of the sport of rodeo. This is not surprising because from its beginning in 1882, until after the completion of the Beeline Highway in 1958, Payson was one of the most remote settlements in the west, hidden from the world in the upper reaches of the Tonto Basin.”
“A few of the ranchers in the Payson area by 1880 included Sam, Bill and Andrew Houston, John Meadows and sons, Henry Siddles, Bill Graig, John and Frank Hise (father and son), William Burch, and Paul Vogel. Andrew Pyeatt and others in the Marysville settlement, west of Payson, had cattle and took part in the Green Valley roundups. Also Joe Gibson moved his cattle from Rye to Round Valley in 1879, and Rial Allen was running cattle on the East Verde River that same year.”
“The entire Tonto Basin, as well as most of Arizona, was open range. The Rim Country ranchers in the upper Tonto Basin let their cattle roam free, so that cattle belonging to each rancher mixed with those of his neighbors. Each year a general roundup was held with cowboys and ranchers driving the cattle to a common roundup camp where calves were branded with their owner’s brand.
Green Valley (later Payson) became the natural hub of activity for the local cowboys and ranchers. It was just as natural for friendly competition and rivalries to develop among the ranchers and cowboys as to who was handiest with a rope, the most skilled bronc rider, or who had the fastest horse. In this manner, contests were born as an extension of the Green Valley cowboy lifestyle. Cowboys tested skills born of necessity against those of their neighbors’. Soon bets were laid down as to who was the best at a particular skill and the sport of rodeo was born, although it would not be known by name for many year.
“Thus, it could be reasonably argued that there were rodeos held in Payson before it existed as a town site! But, the 1884 Celebration is the one that launched the Payson Rodeo as an annual event, and has been known ever since as the – World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo.”
“There could have been other cowboy contests occurring on the range or even in other towns at this time. Evidence of the first cowboy contests were blown away long ago, like campfire smoke and trail dust. Other historians have made their claims as to when their town’s rodeos started and became annual events. For the most part, we have no quarrel with what they say about their own history – but we do care what they say, or do not say about ours!” “For purposes of clarification, the Tonto basin is a watershed bordered by mighty physical barriers and drained primarily by Tonto Creek. It is bounded by theMogollon Rim on the north, the Mazatzal Range on the west and the Sierra Anchas on the east. Before the Roosevelt Dam was built, the southern border was located where Tonto Creek ran into the Salt River Canyon across what is today Roosevelt Lake and eastward to Chub Mountain in the southern Sierra Anchas.”
“Few outsiders knew what went on in the Tonto Basin and most of the locals liked it that way. Consequently, those who were writing the history of the rodeo simply had no clue as to the annual ranch born rodeo and celebration that began in the upper Tonto Basin settlement of Payson during the early 1880s.”
“The Tonto basin ranchers, cowboys, and town folk held their celebration and invited their friends to town. Word of Payson’s annual celebration was passed along by word of mouth. The cowboys and ranchers got the word and came down from the mountains and out of the Tonto valleys bringing their families for the annual event. By 1892, there were eighty-some men at the celebration, largely from the Rim Country, the Tonto Basin, Pleasant Valley, and Globe.”
“Even after automobiles were in common use, the trip to Phoenix and Flagstaff was long and hard and took a day or more, even if all went well. The quickest way to Payson from Phoenix was to take the Apache Trail to Roosevelt, cross Roosevelt Dam and continue northward up the Basin. Raymond Cline recalled a trip from Phoenix to Payson on the newly constructed Bush Highway in 1935 and it took 12 hours. So into the 1950s, Payson’s Rodeo and the town itself was a well kept secret.”
“Those who knew about Payson, knew her as the bootleg capital of Arizona and a hellava rodeo town, But few outside the cowboy culture were aware of the small cow town. Most of those who attended the rodeo were friends and relatives of the local ranching families, but once they came to Payson for a rodeo, they always returned.”
“It wasn’t until the Beeline Highway was paved in 1958 that the fame of the Payson Rodeo – which had burned with flaming intensity for years in central Arizona – began to shine its filtered light through out the state. Still, Payson’s Rodeo fame was roughly limited to Arizona. Its light never shown on the historians of other states, or if it did, they chose largely to ignore the little mountain town’s contribution to rodeo history. So, they made their claims that rodeo had its beginnings in places like Montana, Texas, California, Wyoming, and Prescott, Arizona. Now that Payson’s rodeo history is not secret, any serious discussion of the beginning of the sport of rodeo must include Payson, Arizona!”
Excerpts of this article have been taken from “Rodeo 101” written by Jinx Pyle and Jayne Peace.