RODEO HISTORY IN GILA COUNTY, AZ
The Birthplace of The Modern Day Rodeo
Organizers of the first Payson Rodeo were Abraham Henson Meadows; known later as “Arizona Charlie” Meadows (1860-1932), who moved to the Rim Country with his parents from California in 1877 and young John Collins Chilson (1867-1924) who also moved to this area from California in 1879.
The word passed along from ranch to ranch and on the third weekend of August in 1884, cowboys participated in the first Payson Rodeo. This first rodeo was held in Mid-Town Pasture, a little southwest of the intersection of Highway 87 and old Main, now the site of Sawmill Crossing. A few ranchers and cowboys gathered to see how their roping and riding abilities and the speed of their horses compared to those of their neighbors’. Horse racing, bronc riding, and the ranch-born roping events, along with a little silver dollar pitching, dominated the early agenda. Other events were soon added. Cock fights, greased pig contests, sack races, and foot races became part of the celebration.
The Cowboys also had what they called a “chicken pulling” contest. The fowl was buried in the street with only its head and neck sticking out, A rider would thunder by at a full gallop, lean down and jerk the unfortunate bird flopping from the dirt, then return to the starting point to await his time.
There were no chutes in those early days. The broncs were lead or dragged to the middle of the street and eared down by a couple of cowboys. Someone cinched a rig onto the horse’s back and a twister (bronc rider) stepped onboard. This was not a timed event until later years. The horse was ridden until his head came up – or the rider was thrown. Twisters usually brought their own broncs to those first rodeos. They would ride the broncs of other competitors, as well as their own, so that everyone got a fair shake.
During the street rodeos of the early 1920s those bronc riders began testing their skills on the local white face and Durham cattle. There was no Brahma stock at the Payson Rodeo until 1950 when Rodeo stock contractors began hauling them to Payson. Anything that could buck was fair game: wild steers, cows, bulls, bareback horses. Some enterprising cowboys even tried pulling their saddles off horses and putting them on bulls. Screwing the saddle onto the back of the bull sometimes furnished considerable more entertainment than the ensuing ride afterwards. This practice did not last because the saddles would turn on the loose-skinned bulls.
Payson – World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo
Danny Freeman, author of the World’s Oldest Rodeo 100-Year History 1888-1988, clams that Prescott, Arizona held the world’s first rodeo in 1888. We accept that. But, as will be shown, Payson held its first rodeo four years earlier in 1884.
Freeman states that “those early contests in Payson were some local cowboys competing in roping. They were not organized. The cowboys just came together and roped against each other”.
This is not the case. Local cowboys did compete in roping events – and they also competed in riding and racing events. Additionally, there was organization or the cowboys and spectators would not have known when and where to gather. Entry fees were taken and price money was paid.
We know from Charlie Chilson (March 1, 1968 Payson Round Up Article and 1972 Jayne Peace interview) that his father John C. Chilson, was not only a rodeo organizer along with Arizona Charlie Meadows, but both were also contestants in the first Payson Rodeo held in 1884 in the Midtown Pasture. Charlie was sure that the year was 1884. Additionally, Charlie Chilson told Jayne Peace that Charlie Meadows joined a Wild West show about 1890.
Dick Robbins (1900-1983), the son of John Robbins and Emma Cole Robins, was a top rodeo hand in the 1930s and 1940s. He traveled and roped, often with Lee Barkdoll. In a 1981 interview with Jayne Peace, Dick said that the Payson Rodeo started in 1884.
Maggie Solomon Journigan Miller, wife of Payson pioneer Julian Journigan and mother-in-law to Payson Rodeo Personalities, Lee Barkdoll and Dick Robbins, told Jayne Peace in an interview held on December 16, 1983: “Since my husband had to be gone so much I took a job cooking for Polly Brown at the old Sixteen-To-One Saloon in Payson. That was in 1921, just a year or so before it burned to the ground. They were still having the rodeos in the street. There were still lots of the old cowboys around then. I remember Jess Chilson and Wash Gibson both said they were at the first Payson Rodeo. Jess said his mother had to take him because he was only a tiny baby, but his dad, Emer, was a contestant in that first one. Jess said he was born in 1884, so he knew that was the year the rodeos started in Payson.
Payson’s Horse Racing Heritage
Starting before 1884, local cowboys matched horse races in the Rim Country. Then when the annual celebrations began, horse racing was a premier event and several races were held each day. At first, these were cow horse races, but soon the betting stakes grew to significant proportions and some of the well-heeled ranches brought Thoroughbred and other blooded horses to run in Payson and at other rodeos. The first really great horse to run in Payson was Crowder who beat Emer Chilson’s horse, Hungry John at the 1888 Payson Rodeo.
Main Street Rodeos 1885-1926
After the first rodeo in the Midtown Meadow, the celebration found its way downtown. For a few days in August, Main Street was transformed into a cowboy contest grounds, bordered on the sides only by wagons, yard-fences and spectators. Temporary corrals and sometimes chutes were set up at the upper end of the street while the lower end was left open. A couple of cowboys hazed the events, dabbed a loop on the critters and led them back to the corral after they were roped and ridden. This procedure worked well enough for the roping events, but there were times when stock escaped the confines of the grounds. This added a little excitement for the spectators and mattered little to those early-day cowboys. They would pile a loop on a critter before he got out of town and it was soon tallied back into the corrals.
Most of the activities took place in front of the present-day Bootleg Alley which was the center of town. The old August Pieper Saloon, known as the “Dive” stood on the north side of the street and the Pieper Homestead was on the south side directly across from the saloon. A large water trough and well were located near the house where thirsty teams, saddle horses, and cattle could be watered. The water had to be hand-drawn with a bucket and pulley. The 16 to 1 and the Cowboy’s Home were also popular water holes.
Since 1884 The August Doins has attracted such names as Arizona Charlie Meadows, Tom Mix, Tom Horn, Monty “Hawkeye” Henson and Tye Murray just to name a few. The influence that the Payson Rodeo has had on “Rodeo” history, in general is far-reaching. In fact, there are still many people across this country who fondly remember the excitement and anticipation they felt as they attended their first August Doins.
In the book titled Rodeo 101, written by Jinx and Jayne Peace, they asked some people to share their thoughts about the topic, “When I think of the Payson Rodeo, I think of…”
Terry Willbanks – When they closed off the streets and had those dances!
Leckie Jeane Cline Ski – Downtown Payson at night. It was just one big party. When the fights and tear gas got too bad, we moved out into the street to dance.
Anna Mae Ogilvie Deming – It was a great gather of family and friends. There was so much love and respect – just a world of good people. It meant as much as Christmas. It was something we looked forward to from one year to the next. No man danced with his hat on and Constable Walter Lovelady saw to that! If a man started to the dance floor with his hat on, Walter would tap him on the shoulder and tell him to take his hat off and be respectful of the woman. We danced the Varsovienne, the Schottische, the Paul Jones; just everything. It was a wonderful time!
Dess Morris - Those wild bulls that jumped the fence and ran all over.
Excerpts of this article have been taken out of "Rodeo 101", History of the Payson Arizona Rodeo 1884-1984, by Jinx Pyle and Jayne Peace.