Though Payson’s history dates back to the late 1800s when the logging and ranching community was named for Congressman Louis Edward Payson, who helped to establish the first post office in the area, one can truly appreciate our town’s progress by tracing the state of its school system, particularly, the high school.
Payson’s first schoolhouse was completed in the spring of the 1938-1939 school year. Prior to this point, indoor sports, like basketball, took place in Barkdoll’s Dance Hall. Many local hands helped to construct what is still referred to as the Rock Building, using rock from a local quarry. This six-classroom school serviced all students, grades one through 12 until 1955 when a block structure was added to the north which would house the elementary kids. Grades seven through 12 continued in the original building with basketball finally finding a home in the Rock Building gym. Following the start up of a basketball team came our first baseball team in 1957-’58.
In November of the 1958-’59 school year, Mr. Ted Pettet entered the scene, a brand new graduate of Arizona State College (now NAU), leaving a reasonably paying job as a taxi driver in Flagstaff for a teaching contract awarding him $4,500.00 annually. During that year there were 62 high school girls and boys registered including students from Pine and Strawberry transported to the rock building via a 9-passenger station wagon down an unpaved road, with asphalt beginning just south of the existing 260/87 intersection. And during the spring of 1960, our sports program had grown to include track.
By 1962 the student population had increased enough to warrant the construction of a separate high school altogether. With Ivan Wade providing the vision, Payson Unified School District was born: Mr. Wade became the first superintendent, the district was now officially empowered to grant high school diplomas to our graduates, and he had land trades in the works to expand our new district. That same year saw the birth of the football program with practices taking place in a pasture near the golf course; needless to say, there were no home games that first year. By 1965, the current administration building at the high school, also known as Old Main, was open for learning. Lunchtime bussing was part of each day as high school kids were transported back to the school on Main Street for meals. To meet some additional classroom needs, we purchased two portables from Davis Monthem Air Force Base in Tucson to serve as business classrooms and changing rooms for PE. Still without a gymnasium, high school students hustled down the hill to use the Rock Building.
In 1967, the anticipation of a high school gymnasium was crushed by a six-foot snowfall over three or four days leading to the collapse of the new building's roof. Designed by a Scottsdale architect and based on Coronado High School's gym, ours came with an interesting feature: because of the blasting required for below ground locker room facilities, our gym qualified for additional funding because it doubled as a bomb shelter. The roof reconstruction was completed with occupancy taking place the following year. And the football field went in at the same time. The middle grades remained at the Rock Building until 1968 when a four-classroom structure was built along Wade Lane, named after the Ivan Wade family. But by 1972, the high school had outgrown its classroom facilities and forced the middle schoolers back to their original location until their new home on the current campus was constructed in 1980.
Construction begins on the Autos/Woods Shops
Just before then, in 1979, the autos and woodshop programs finally moved into their new home. Following that, the agriculture program took up residence in portables with dreams of constructing a respectable facility. In 1984, the academic building was completed, providing PHS a library and nine classrooms, three of which were set up as science labs. And in 1985, the campus on which the Rock School stood was renamed Julia Randall Elementary School, after Payson's 46-year pioneer teacher. To address the growing number of students attending the high school, three portable units providing six classrooms were brought in during the mid-1980s. By the end of 1988, the community auditorium was completed, with the very first performance showcasing our own drama department, under the direction of John Siler. And the small administration building just east of Old Main was finished, too.
The West parking lot in 1980.
Payson High School’s construction scene remained quiet until plans for the new CTE facility, our C-building, began in 1994. By the following year, we had a state-of-the-art kitchen with adjoining dining/preschool and sewing rooms plus six additional classrooms, of which three were computer labs, one being the high-tech A+ certification workshop. Nineteen ninety-seven marked the completion of the Dave Wilson Dome, named after the police chief killed in the line of duty; the certificate of occupancy came just in time for prom that year. Around that time what used to be a locker bay was walled in and became our Computer Aided Drafting lab, now our STEM lab. And in 1998 the drama department finally got its much desired black box theater to round out the century.
In 2003, Payson High School finally got its own cafeteria. For more than forty years, either food or students were transported from or to another site. Though the facility only holds 133 students at a time, it provides a place for kids to eat, especially during inclement weather. The D-building, as it is now known, also provided six additional classrooms, and became home to our English department. A long-awaited Wendell Stevens Agricultural Building opened in 2010, without its namesake at its helm, to begin a new era of agricultural education. This facility boasts a barn, classroom, shop, office, and two small animal treatment rooms.
Over time, much has changed on the high school campus. The old gym has a new roof (completed in November, 2012), the portables and the original middle school buildings have been razed, and Old Main—now the A Building—has been completely renovated. Payson High School today encompasses 13 different buildings, a softball and baseball field, a football field surrounded by an all-weather track, and two paved and solar-paneled parking lots. Technologically, wi-fi is available across half the campus with the hope of making it available throughout.
Though the facility may feel different to those who once walked our campus, one thing has remained the same: the commitment of those who have taught and worked here. Thanks to all, past and present, for all you have done to produce PHS graduates. We salute you all, for it’s great to be a longhorn!