Arizona is the home today of many famous people but its first superstar was a rodeo cowboy and Wild West performer named “Arizona Charlie.” He was born in Visalia, California, during a rare snowstorm. His given name was Abraham Henson Meadows but that would soon change. He was born March 10th, 1860, just before the outbreak of the Civil War. His father, John, was a Confederate sympathizer and with the election of Mr. Lincoln, that fall he changed the lad’s name to Charles.
In 1877, the family settled on a ranch at Diamond Valley, north of Payson where the community of Whispering Pines is today.
In 1882, Charlie had ridden to Pine Creek to guide an Army detachment through the pass at the head of the East Verde River onto the Mogollon Rim when a war party of Apache swept through the rim country and attacked the Meadows ranch. His father and two of his brothers were wounded in the ambush. One brother, Harry William Meadows, later died from his wounds. John Meadows would be the first person to be buried in the Payson Pioneer Cemetery.
Charlie was left in charge and while caring for the family ranch, and in 1884, he, along with John C. Chilson, organized America’s first rodeo.
Riding his white horse aptly named “Snowstorm,” Charlie won nearly every event, beating the famous Tom Horn in the roping contest. He went on the rodeo circuit with Snowstorm and set new records in steer tying at Prescott. He won again in Phoenix.
Show business was in his blood and Charlie made up his mind to become a performer in a Wild West show. He needed to free himself from the responsibility of running the family ranch and he soon got that chance.
On August 16th, 1890, at the annual August Doin’s Charlie hosted both a cattle gathering and double wedding for his younger sister, Maggie who married Tom Beach while, her friend Julia Hall wed Charlie Cole.
Charlie announced the couples were welcome to all the unbranded calves on the Meadows ranch they could rope and brand by sundown. At the end of the day the two happy couples all good ropers, had gathered enough calves to start their own herds.
Unsaddled from the responsibilities of running the ranch Charlie left Payson to pursue his dream. By 1892 he was riding in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West.
Arizona Charlie had an illustrious career performing all over the world with Buffalo Bill’s Wild West including a performance in England before Queen Victoria. Standing 6’6” Charlie was quite an imposing figure in the arenas.
Somewhere along the way Charlie took up with a beautiful showgirl named Mae McKamish Melbourne and in 1898 the two set out for Klondike to make their fortune. They struck it rich but then lost his gold mine in a poker game. He opened the Palace Grand Theater in Dawson, which is still in operation.
The Klondike boom was fading by 1901 so Charlie and Mae headed to Arizona and took up residence in Yuma.
When his show biz days ended Charlie retired to the town of Yuma, where his long, dark hair turned to silver. He wasn’t ready to go on to his reward yet and he believed the dry, healthy climate in Yuma would extend his life. When rode his horse into the saloons folks just laughed and said “Old Charlie is still sewing his wild oats.”
When the horseless carriage came along Charlie drove like he rode broncs. He survived an accident when he collided with a cactus in and when friends cautioned him to be more careful he replied, “It’ll be a snowy day in Yuma when they plant this old Hassayamper.”
Back before the Californians started calling Arizonans as “Zonies,” they referred to themselves as Hassayampers, after the storied Hassayampa River where legend has it that once you drink its water, you can never tell the truth again.
Arizona Charlie died on December 9th, 1932 and on that day it snowed an inch and a half in downtown Yuma. Old timers say it hasn’t snowed there since.
In 1988 a relative, Ernest Becker opened an eighteen million dollar resort and casino in Las Vegas called “Arizona Charlie’s Hotel and Casino” The famous photo of him in his Wild West outfit graces the front of the building.
Today, Arizona Charlie Meadows is Payson’s most famous citizen. He earned the title as the “Father of the Payson Rodeo,” by organizing and competing in the first one in 1884. The Payson Rodeo is the “World’s Oldest Continuous Rodeo.”