PAYSON – The day of the annual rodeo here. Bill Armstrong walks in front of the chutes that will hold the animals. They are empty. So are the stands. Armstrong isn’t worried; he knows they will fill up.
They always fill up.
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Armstrong has done this 44 times now, every year without missing an event. Soon, the animals will bang at the gates and thousands of screaming fans beg for the chutes to fling open.
It’s time for the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo.
“It used to really be fun, but now it’s a job that they couldn’t pay me enough money to do,” Armstrong said. “I still love it, but it’s a lot of work.”
He’s not about to retire, though.
“I owe too many people,” he said with a laugh.
As rodeo boss, Armstrong runs Payson’s pride and joy, the rodeo nationally recognized as the oldest in the world that runs annually. But as he is quick to say, it is not the World’s Oldest Rodeo. The honor of hosting that belongs not to Payson, but to Prescott.
In 1888, 100 miles west of the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo grounds, cowboys got together and charged admission for an event in Prescott recognized by both cities as the World’s Oldest Rodeo.
The exact dates are murky. Payson claims it began four years earlier in 1884, but detractors claim it was unorganized and not an official rodeo. When the Prescott rodeo went on hiatus from 1941-45 because of World War II, calling Payson’s the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo was a compromise of sorts.
Despite what could have the potential to be a contentious relationship, the two cities do not see it as a rivalry. They appear mostly indifferent toward each other.
“Competition? I just view it as putting on a rodeo,” said Dan Wile, the president of the Payson Rodeo Committee. “It’s not a competition between the two of us.”
J.C. Trujillo is a legend in Prescott rodeo. Born and raised in the city, he competed for the Arizona State University rodeo team, won the bareback world championship in 1981 and was enshrined in the Pro Rodeo Hall of Fame.
Now the general manager of the Prescott rodeo, he said it was a rivalry in the past, but when Prescott’s rodeo committee registered the trademark for the name “World’s Oldest Rodeo,” the fight was over.
“I think it’s pretty much a solved question that undoubtedly the Prescott Frontier Days is the World’s Oldest Rodeo,” Trujillo said.
Records were hardly kept when rodeos began. They often started with a few cowboys competing in unorganized events, far from a formal occasion. While the official start date of the Prescott rodeo is 1888, Pecos, Texas claims it holds the oldest rodeo, celebrating its 100th anniversary in 1983.
It came to a head in 1985 when Trivial Pursuit listed Prescott as the birthplace of rodeo in its game and Pecos threatened to sue if a correction wasn’t made. Prescott said it would sue if the name was changed. Pecos didn’t sue and the Trivial Pursuit answer remained the same.
Even though Trivial Pursuit still lists Prescott as the oldest rodeo in the world, Pecos maintains its claim.
The fight over a title in a board game shows the pride the towns have in their rodeos. While not the oldest, Payson proudly boasts it has never missed a show. With an estimated population of just over 15,000 at the 2010 census, it is important to keep the town’s history intact, Armstrong said.
The Payson rodeo is not profitable, but it is not supposed to be. Sponsors – including prominent national sponsors like Coca-Cola, Wrangler and Ram Trucks – foots the bill, which Armstrong estimates to be approximately $175,000. Any proceeds stay in Payson, Armstrong said, with a large amount going to the Payson Rodeo Committee Gary Hardt Memorial Scholarship.
The rodeo distributes six scholarships, five valued at $2,000 and one at $2,500. The money is used for students to attend college or vocational schools.
“That’s why the Payson Rodeo Committee works on keeping the heritage of Payson alive,” Armstrong said. “That’s our main object, besides our scholarships to our kids, is to keep the Western way alive.”
It is one thing Prescott and Payson agree on.
“The rodeo is a key part of that Western history and tradition we enjoy in Prescott,” said Don Prince, Prescott’s tourism director. “Many other rodeos in California and other Western states are important, but none of them have the history and tradition that the World’s Oldest Rodeo in Prescott, Arizona, does.”
Prescott’s rodeo is a seven-day event spread over the week of Independence Day. The week generates approximately $12 million in economic impact, according to the Prescott Office of Tourism.
“We not only have the rodeo, we have the parade, we have a dance, we have all kinds of great things going on Independence Day,” Trujillo said. “Prescott, Arizona, is the place to be over the Fourth of July.
“By golly, if you haven’t been at the Prescott rodeo, you need to come.”
Prince said the week is the most important time for Prescott tourism. The weather is cooler in the Prescott valley than it is in Phoenix, and nearly 35,000 flock to the area for the holiday week, he said.
While Prescott owns the rodeo scene in July, attention shifts back east to Payson in August. Payson goes with a smaller event that includes a parade. The celebration lasts just a few days, but 3,500 fans pack the arena to capacity, with many only able to get standing-room-only tickets.
It is an important week for Payson.
“The only ones that complain are if we have a parade and they have to close for an hour, but they can live with it,” Armstrong said. “Mainly the restaurants and the motels and gas stations (are affected).”
Armstrong will walk out onto the empty arena before the madness begins in a few months. Once the Payson rodeo is over Aug. 20, it will be time to get ready for the 130th edition of the World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo in August 2017.
“The minute that rodeo’s over, we start that same day,” Armstrong said. “It takes every one of us to put this rodeo on.”