Updated: Jun 19
If it were not for the Covid -19 Pandemic that is going on in the world right now Payson would be celebrating rodeo week, culminating with 2 awesome performances put on by the Payson Pro Rodeo Committee this weekend. The 3rd weekend in May is always reserved for the Gary Hardt Memorial PRCA Rodeo and the 3rd weekend in August is the World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo sponsored by the PRCA. Now if you are not from these parts you might ask yourself why would they name a Rodeo the "World's Oldest Continuous Rodeo" and not just call it the "World's Oldest Rodeo". Well folks, there in lies the problem. Late Town Historian Jinx Pyle and his wife Jayne Peace Pyle tackled this subject a few years ago when they wrote the book "Rodeo 101". This is a good read and sheds some light on the "Why" and "How" this so called Rodeo feud began... Jinx wrote: During my growing up years and beyond there was some trash talk every summer between Payson and Prescott as to who had the oldest rodeo. One summer, I asked my dad about it and he told me that I should talk to my Aunt Rose Childers. I did and she told me, “Jinx, my dad (Mart McDonald) was at the first Payson Rodeo in 1884. He said it was held in the Mid-Town Pasture. That’s where Owens Brothers Lumber is now. Prescott didn’t have a rodeo until 1888 and they missed all through the war years.”
That sealed the deal for me because Aunt Rose kept track of Payson’s history and Prescott said their first rodeo was in 1888. So Payson’s had to be the oldest by four years. But every summer the two towns would kick up the dust with the same old argument. Prescott spokespeople said that Payson couldn’t prove their claim; that all we had was the word of a bunch of dead people and that Prescott had their claim documented in their newspaper.
Some of Prescott’s locals would say that all Payson had to go on was oral history and that it should be dismissed as unreliable. I figured that they might as well dismiss the history of the American Indian as well, since it had been handed down orally.
Then in 1972, Prescott copyrighted and trade marked the phrase World’s Oldest Rodeo. Payson came back with World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo, which to me was a cop out, but a few people in Prescott still weren’t happy. Suddenly documentation surfaced to the effect that Prescott had held rodeos through the years of World War II. Old-timers in Payson didn’t believe it. They said they knew better. Prescott had not claimed to have had continuous rodeos since 1888 until the Payson Chamber of Commerce started using the word continuous in their slogan.
Now, Payson had a number of civic minded organizations that claimed to big rodeo supporters. It always rubbed my hackles the wrong way that no one ever stood up on their hind legs and told Prescott that they had neither pot nor window. But, for whatever reason, Payson just rolled over and took it.
I was still mad about that when along came Danny Freeman with a book about the Prescott Rodeo. It is a great book and gives a lot of information about that town’s rodeo, but Danny gets to making circles like an ant in a jar when he starts talking about the Payson Rodeo. Danny couldn’t find much written about the Payson Rodeo – I guess because they didn’t get around to writing about it in the Prescott paper – so he essentially said that Payson didn’t have a rodeo in 1884, and even if we did, it wasn’t a real rodeo because it wasn’t organized. Besides that, we didn’t charge admission and Danny claims that “someone one once said” that you have to charge admission before something can be called a true sporting event. So, with that bit of wisdom, he dismissed Payson’s claim.
Well, over the years Jayne and I have grown a little tired of Prescott historians trying to write the history of the Payson Rodeo, so when we wrote our book, Rodeo 101, we addressed the issue of who’s rodeo is the oldest and documented it to the hilt. Here is a little taste of what we said in our book about the origin of the Payson Rodeo:
Lena Chilson Hampton, wife of Jess Chilson who attended the first Payson Rodeo, told Jayne Peace in a 1983 interview, “I came to Payson in 1918 with Polly and Harry Brown. I came here to teach school, but soon I met Jesse Chilson who was red-headed and a good cowman. I know when the first Payson Rodeo was held because it was the year that Jesse was born- 1884! He was born right here in Payson on June 1, 1884 and went to the first rodeo in his mother’s arms. His mother (Mary Margaret Birchett Chilson) told him all about it.
Rose McDonald Childers, wife of Howard Childers, shared with the Payson Roundup (May 22, 1964 issue) the names of several pioneers who attended or competed in that first rodeo in 1884. Her father, Mart McDonald, who was a competitor in that first rodeo, handed down a written list of the names to her. The list includes W. J. Randall, Frank Randall Sr., and Bert Randall of Pine, Emer Chilson, John C. Chilson, Boss Chilson, of Payson, Christian Cline and son, John Cline, of the lower Tonto Basin, Arizona Charlie Meadows from the Meadows Ranch under the Mogollon Rim, Joe Gibson, Wash Gibson, Arthur Gibson, Daniel Webster Jones, John Sanders, Miny Sanders, and Mart Sanders of the old Mormon settlement of Gisela.
Howard and Rose Childers shared this information with Jayne Peace in a 1981 interview. Additionally, Howard gave this information to Jim and Anna Mae Deming.
George Cline, the 1923 World Champion Calf Roper from Tonto Basin, said his father, John Cline, was at the 1884 event. “My dad told me that he roped in the first Payson Rodeo held in 1884. He said it started two years before I was born.” Cline went on to say that “cash prizes were given” (1964 Ralph Fisher interview and 1972 Jayne Peace interview).
Additionally, there is a book titled “Arizona Charlie” by Jean Beach King in which she writes about the life of her great uncle, Charlie Meadows. In the prologue, King names her sources as Meadows’ “diaries, newspaper headlines and articles, and treasured scrapbooks.”
King writes in chapter four of her book “– Charlie entered his first Wild West roping contest in August of 1884. He competed against . . .John Chilson, in Payson’s mid-town cow pasture . . . This contest set a precedent – one that has been carried out each August since 1884. . .”
So, the fact that Payson’s first rodeo was held in 1884 was documented in King’s sources which include “diaries, newspaper headlines and articles, and treasured scrapbooks.”
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.
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 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.
Those who knew about Payson, knew her as the boot-leg capitol 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 – begin to shine its filtered light throughout 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 no secret, any serious discussion of the beginning of the sport of rodeo must include Payson, Arizona!
So there you have it. We will all miss the rodeo this weekend but we know that better days are coming...yes they are, in August when the World's Oldest "Continuous" Rodeo thunders in to Town. Should be a big party and we hope you will all join us as we celebrate America's first ever Xtreme Sport - Rodeo!
Article by Jinx and Jayne Pyle
Excerpts taken from Rodeo101