by Amie Rodgers
Found just below the Mogollon Rim, the town of Payson was born in 1882 with a population of around 42. At this time, 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 and Payson became the area’s hub of activity for local cowboys and ranchers. Although it was not uncommon for the local cowboys to hold frequent competitions showcasing their skills at riding, roping, and bronc busting, it was in 1884 the first Payson rodeo was organized by Abraham Henson Meadows—known later as Arizona Charlie Meadows (1860-1962)—and young John Collins Chilson (1867-1924) on the third weekend of August.
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. After the first rodeo in the Meadow, the celebration was moved downtown. For a few days in August, Main Street was transformed into a cowboy-contest grounds, bordered on the sides only by wagons (and later, cars), yard fences, and spectators. Most of the activities took place in front of the present-day Bootleg Alley which was the center of town.
“Later, but well before my time, the rodeo was moved to Rumsey Park, but it got so congested the town built an event center on the edge of town. So, what started as local cowboys showing off and having a good time has now become a multi-million dollar business bringing in visitors from all over the world,” says Rodeo Boss (of thirty two years) Bill Armstrong, “This year will be our 132nd rodeo. For at least the last 35 to 40 years, we have been a PRCA (Professional Rodeo Cowboy Association) rodeo, which means we attract world-champion cowboys from around the world. The Rodeo Committee bought the rodeo from the Payson Chamber of Commerce three years ago and it has done nothing but grow even more from there. On our committee, we have around 125 paid working members and another 100 or more volunteers. We are one of the few rodeos that boasts all the national sponsors such as Resistol Hats, Justin Boots, Wrangler Jeans, Coors Beer, etc. In addition, our local sponsors have been behind us forever and we really appreciate them. Not only does the rodeo benefit the local businesses, but our Tough Enough to Wear Pink night benefits breast-cancer awareness, and every year we give out six scholarships to local kids.”
So, grab your favorite cowboy or cowgirl, and all the little buckaroos, and don’t miss the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo on August 19th and 20th.