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History & Evolution of the World’s Oldest Rodeo: Payson Pro Rodeo

From a population of 42 “Green Valley” grew into Payson and in 1884 it became the home of Rodeo, today, the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo. Payson was a remote settlement until the completion of the Beeline Highway in 1958 and a well-kept secret into the 1950s. Prior to the Beeline in 1935 it took 12 hours to get here from Phoenix via Bush Highway. 

To get a little more insight on the upcoming event, we were able to snag an interview with Rodeo Director, Bill Armstrong. Here’s a little bit more about him and his involvement with the Payson Pro Rodeo Committee.

“Back in the day, the Chamber of Commerce owned the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo and we were paid to run it for them.  I was the Co-Rodeo Boss for the 100th World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo as it had been Jim Barrett’s last year, as he was retiring.  The rodeo in 1984 was held at the old Rumsey Arena but it was actually the 101st Annual Rodeo. 1884 through 1984 is 101 years so the 100th Rodeo would have been in 1983.  There was a great celebration as people commemorated what they believed to be the 100th.  So, I actually started my Rodeo Boss career for the Payson Rodeos at the 101st Annual in 1984.

The Chamber had a hard time getting volunteers and was having a hard time making money, so we formed a new Committee, the Payson Pro Rodeo Committee.  In 2011, we had the opportunity to purchase the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo. Art Lloyd helped us during this purchase and as a matter of fact, he has been there for many years helping us getting the committee incorporated and our nonprofit status.”Bill Armstrong

Image Property of Git A Rope Publishing – All Rights Reserved | Greg Armstrong riding 675

The first organizers for the “Payson Rodeo” were Charlie Meadows and John Chilson, both coming from California to Payson. The first rodeo was held in a midtown pasture off Main Street in 1884 – just southwest of the intersection of Highway 87 and Main Street. At the first rodeos, no admission was charged and there were no cash awards, but bragging rights awarded, and plenty of cash changed hands.

The name of the Payson rodeo evolved over the years. It was first called the August Races (Horse racing was a big event in those early years to see whose horse was the fastest) then later the August Celebration or the August Doin’’s, and finally the Payson Rodeo. It was truly a celebration for the whole town. It was an opportunity anticipated by everyone, as much as Christmas – a time to visit, eat, gamble, race their horses, dance, and show off their Cowboy and Cowgirl skills. From 1885 to 1926 most of Payson’s rodeos were held in the dirt on Main Street. The celebration lasted several days. We asked Bill about the changes he has seen over the years and below is what it’s been like for him to see the committee and events change over time.

Image Property of Git A Rope Publishing – All Rights Reserved | Nancy Sheppard World-Renowned Rodeo Trickster at the Payson Rodeo.

The committee is what made the rodeo.  We have the best volunteer group that I know of.  All of our money stays in town to provide scholarships for our students.  We donate to organizations that need help such as “Reach Out for Breast Cancer”, the Seniors for Meal on Wheels, and student athletics. 

We also have the best cowboys that come to our rodeo.  I stay in touch with them, reach out to them to ask them to come to our rodeo. We have had Ty Murray several times, Charlie Sampson, Cody Hancock, Mark Gomes, Wes Severson, and Sage Kimzey this last year.  There are so many that we have had, hard to mention them all.  Along with the money, we give Leon King spurs.  The cowboys and cowgirls love this! Additionally, We have the best sponsors.  Over the years, I have been able to get the National Sponsors.  We are one of the few rodeos to have them.  We have great local sponsors that support us.”Bill Armstrong

Image Property of Git A Rope Publishing – All Rights Reserved

Today’s World’s Oldest Continuous rodeo brings many visitors from the Valley and all over the world as far away as Norway, Germany, France, and Australia. The rodeo cost a pretty penny to produce; today to the tune of $100,000+++. Early Payson rodeos were funded creatively. In the 1920’s there were smaller crowds and money was not plentiful. Payson was still a remote mountain town far away from the long arm of state and federal law enforcement, so rodeo organizers decided to use gambling to fund the rodeo – Perfectly legal according to the Law North of the Salt River – as noted by Jinx Pyle in his book Rodeo 101! Gambling tents, slot machines, roulette wheels, dice and blackjack did a bang-up business between 6 PM and midnight each evening of the rodeo. Most rodeos today, including Payson’s, are funded by National, Regional, and more importantly local sponsors. The gate proceeds cover a little more or less than 60% of what is needed to put on the show.

To wrap this story up, we asked bill what one of his favorite rodeo memories was and this was his response,

The best memory is when we were honored to receive the Small Outdoor Rodeo Committee of the Year in 1993 by the PRCA.  We were at the National Finals, in the arena where we were announced.  We were back behind and got to meet the cowboys. ” – Bill Armstrong

Bill Armstrong & Mike Rich

To learn more about Payson and our rodeo tradition read Rodeo 101 by Jinx and Jayne Pyle. Much of the information here is from that book. If you cannot find a copy, check out the Historical Society’s museum store in Green Valley Park off west Main Street.

The Payson Pro Rodeo Committee owns and produces the Annual World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo as well as the Spring rodeo, the Gary Hardt Memorial rodeo. Their mission is to keep the Western Heritage and Lifestyle alive here in Rim Country and through the production of the rodeos to provide funds for their 501c-3 non-profit to supply scholarships for local needy Rim Country graduating seniors for both vocational and academic studies, and to also help local Breast Cancer and Veteran support, groups. Added funding is supplied to other needs and to local high school sports activities. An added benefit locally is the economic impact of our rodeos. This is the result of visitors to Rim Country at rodeo time. It is estimated that those visitors produce more than $3,000,000 in sales from rooms, food, and fuel that they purchase. A good reason for all of us to get behind and support our rodeo tradition here in Payson.

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Peter the "Cowboy" is a gunslinger style writer from Bismark, North Dakota. Controversy is his middle name. He loves the cowboy lifestyle and being an American.

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