The ‘heart’ of Arizona resonates in this lush, Rim Country locale
Earlier this year, a group of local citizens and community leaders from Payson began a program that speaks volumes about the character of this small, central-Arizona town and the 15,000 or so people who call it home. The plan, which got its start in February, involves planting an entire orchard of apple trees grafted from heirloom rootstock behind Main Street, in empty lots and other likely areas where the greenery and its fruit will one day help beautify downtown.
Once the idea gained some steam, Payson’s citizens and local small businesses responded as they typically do when they hear about something that’s clearly going to be good for the community—they rallied behind it, reaching into their pockets and raising around $18,000 in less than 24 hours.
Now well underway, the apple-tree planting project is, necessarily, a forward-looking plan—considering the saplings will need at least five years growing time before they’re mature enough to bear any fruit or add any real aesthetic beauty to the town’s main thoroughfare. It speaks to the vision of the Payson townspeople that they have a commitment to their community’s future.
But it’s the idea itself, and Payson’s response to it, that’s bearing some more immediate fruit. The plan serves as a metaphor, of sorts, for the value and promise of small-town living in America. It illustrates the essence of that way of life, and what it means to live in a place like Payson.
In 1882, the year a handful of local historians generally agree the town was officially founded, Payson claimed just 42 residents. Back then, it was called Green Valley, a reference to its unusual—for Arizona—lushness.
Situated at roughly 4,900 feet above sea level, just below the majestic Mogollon Rim, the verdant Payson environs were dotted with cattle ranches owned and operated by some of Arizona’s most stalwart pioneers. So tranquil and easygoing was the region that many ranchers simply let their cattle run free to mingle with other herds, with the cattlemen agreeing to sort out their livestock once a year, during an annual roundup in what is now Payson.
It was perhaps that yearly gathering, and its spirit of cooperation and conviviality, that helped foster the development of one of Payson’s proudest appellations, that of being “home of the world’s oldest continuous rodeo.”
Cameron Davis-Parks, Payson’s recreation and tourism director, notes that as far back as the early 1880s, ranchers from the Rim Country that envelops Payson would venture down from their mountain ranches to congregate in the town for a variety of rodeo events, including bull riding and steer wrestling, horse racing and a full slate of similarly rugged pastimes. The event grew through the years into a gala, multi-day celebration.
Traditionally held the third full weekend in August, the Payson Rodeo this year marks its 133rd anniversary of continuous, raucous rodeo-ing. With that event and many others like it, Payson proudly pays homage to its rugged, rough-and-tumble cowboy-town roots.
Building a Beeline
By virtue of its remote location in the mountains, Payson remained a somewhat isolated, self-contained cattle town for several decades after its founding. It wasn’t until 1958, with the completion of Arizona State Route 87—the Beeline Highway as it’s more popularly known—that the community came into its own as a bona fide tourist destination. With the opening of that byway, Phoenix-area residents had only to embark on a leisurely, 90-minute-or-so drive northeasterly to reach the serene, pine-strewn sanctuary of the Rim Country, of which Payson was a natural hub.
Now, the Beeline is a smoothly contoured, four-lane highway traversing some of Arizona’s most spectacular scenery, making the trip to Payson a truly welcome respite from the heat and congestion of the Valley of the Sun.
Today, Payson continues its reputation as a highly desirable small town that offers a myriad of virtues for residents and visitors alike. Town manager LaRon Garrett puts it succinctly.
“We have great people who live and work here; it’s a community-minded area where people like to get involved and work together,” he says. “Our weather is phenomenal…there are a lot of local small businesses where people enjoy shopping…it’s just an all-around great community to live in.”
One of the biggest draws for anyone who lives in or passes through the town is Green Valley Park. Situated at the end of Main Street on roughly 30 beautifully landscaped acres, the park offers picnicking, hiking, boating and fishing on three separate lakes and many other activities.
“It’s the biggest pillar for tourism and locals alike. I would call it ‘the jewel of Payson,’ ” Davis-Parks says. “It has green lush grass and ramadas, a big bandstand and amphitheater where we hold summer concerts. It’s become the gathering place for our community and out-of-town visitors.”
A gathering place indeed, Green Valley Park and other choice venues in and around Payson are the settings for more than 100 special events that the town or region hosts each year.
Building on its Strengths
For all its virtues, Payson, like any community large or small, isn’t without its challenges. That’s why Garrett; Sheila DeSchaaf, Payson’s economic development director; and other members of the town’s management team are working diligently to build on the growth and development Payson already is enjoying.
For one thing, DeSchaaf says she and her colleagues would like to focus on a stronger economic base, with more manufacturing that will, in turn, create additional jobs. “That will help us lower our median age a bit. It’s now right around 53 and we’d like to see that drop some.”
It’s not that the area is devoid of manufacturing, the town leaders note. “The Rim Country area is home to at least 24 manufacturers,” says economic development specialist Bobby Davis. “Snider Gun Barrels in our industrial complex produces gun barrels for a lot of the military branches. And the only ammunition manufacturer in Arizona, Ammo Inc., is located in Payson.”
Door Stop, another small business, is a millworking facility that manufactures and distributes cabinet doors throughout the U.S. but Davis and DeSchaaf know well the inherent source of Payson’s strength and appeal.
“Our primary industry is tourism, and that’s one of the huge drivers to why people choose Payson as a place they want to live,” DeSchaaf says. “We want to grow our tourism in a way that’s sustainable, so we can continue to build upon it and make lifestyle improvements within the community so that people will continue to want to come here to live.”
Davis adds to DeSchaaf’s vision of the town’s future. “We have a wonderful family environment. Our proximity to outdoor recreation—hiking, biking, hunting, fishing and camping—is second to none. We’re selling that lifestyle, not only to our residents but to our potential new businesses, as well. We’re concentrating some of our efforts on recruiting new businesses to come in—businesses that will fit here in our environment.”
One of those relatively new retail businesses that, as Davis says, fits the environment and typifies the sort of commerce Payson is looking to attract and nurture is Mogollon Moose. Founded just a little over a year ago by owner and executive chef, Kristi Church, the bakery and lunch eatery is precisely the sort of contemporary, forward-thinking, small business the Payson town leadership is trying to establish.
Locating—and now having expanded—her business in a storefront downtown right on Main Street, Church has worked hard to win over the town’s more traditional “meat and potatoes” diners by offering a menu that features fresh, healthy bakery items and ingredients prepared in some novel and very tasty ways. It was a gamble, Church says.
“When we first opened I really didn’t know that Rim Country was going to embrace our food,” she admits. “It’s kind of a traditional town and I knew [Mogollon Moose] could either succeed or go the other way. We serve a lot of kale!”
But, she admits, she’s given herself over to the idea that Payson can become an even better small town than it currently is.
“We’re working really hard to make this community more attractive. Our goal is the revitalization of Main Street, to bring it back to looking and feeling like more of a ‘hometown USA’ Main Street. It’s not quite there yet, but it will be,” she says, adding that what she really loves about Payson is that it’s the kind of community people move to by choice.
“You move here because you want to be here. When you live in Payson, you feel you’re a part of something larger than yourself, and that’s a good feeling.”
Story by Bruce Farr
Photography by Mark Lipczynski