By Debra Matthews

“There she is, Miss America” is the line famously sung by Bert Parks that spawned many Americans to take a look at beautiful bathing beauties.  However, long before the televised Miss America pageants, there were bathing beauty contests held in places across the country, including the little frontier town of Prescott, Arizona.  Within the Sharlot Hall Museum Archives there are vintage photos of bathing beauty contests held at the Granite Dells swimming lake, later named the “Granite Dells Resort,” owned by the Wing and Payne families.

Brothers James and George Wing came to the Arizona Territory in 1877 to begin mining in the Prescott area.  They filed a claim on Galena Gulch, in the Big Bug area northwest of Mayer, in 1882.  Soon after, their father, Thomas Wing, moved from Chicago to Prescott after he was appointed as the U.S. Land Office Register for Arizona Territory by President Chester A. Arthur.  About this time, James Wing filed a homestead on 160 acres five miles north of Prescott then called “Point of Rocks.”  Thomas Wing later coined the name “Granite Dells”because the homestead included a small, secluded valley filled with woods and wildlife.  In 1883, Marcia Wing arrived from Chicago to care for her widowed father Thomas and brothers James and George.

Originally this Dells area had been a refuge for Indians, where they may have dug the original pond for watering their livestock.  Starting with this primitive infrastructure, the Wing brothers made improvements on the watering and irrigation system so they could farm the Dells area.  After Thomas’ arrival, George became a Bashford & Burmister store clerk, while James and his father continued farming the Dells area.

Meanwhile, in 1880, E. C. Payne had received a letter from his friend, Henry Rider, who was building a church in Prescott, listing the merits of living in the west.  E. C. wrote in his diary, “I must go there someday.”  This quote was later used by the Payne family for the title of their family history book.  In 1885, Marcia Wing met E. C. Payne and they married, joining the Wing and Payne families.  Marcia and E. C. ended up raising five children in Prescott.

In 1900, a one-hundred year flood destroyed much of the farm and a discouraged James moved to Mullan, Idaho, returning to mining.  Unfortunately, five years later he was killed in a mining accident. A few weeks later Thomas passed at age 84. Marcia Wing Payne then inherited the Granite Dells property.

Marcia and E. C. decided not to work the farm and leased the property to doctors B. W. Leavell and F. W. Sawyer, who began a tuberculosis sanatorium according to the Payne & Wing family history book.  However, by 1903 Granite Dells was established as Prescott’s summer resort with features that included picnicking, bathing, boating and dancing under a canvas-covered pavilion.

After WWI, the Payne sons, Morris and Howell, took over management of the Dells area under the title, “Outing Association.” In 1922, these brothers used their WWI service money to scoop out the mud and dirt to create a cement swimming pool in the Dells.  The pool was said to hold three million gallons of water.  In the Payne family history book and E. C.’s diary there is an entry for June 15, 1921, “1st Bathing Beauty Contest at Granite Dells swimming lake declared a gorgeous success.”

According to the Journal Miner in June 1924, there are many articles detailing a major bathing beauty event at The Dells, which was sponsored by the Pessimist Club of Prescott.  The entire town was invited to participate, “anyone from 9 to 90.”  The Granite Dells Resort continued as a popular entertainment resort from the 1930s through 1970s, with a swimming pool, boating lake, dance pavilion, shooting gallery, bowling alley, food concessions and cottages.  Morris Payne closed the resort in 1971 due to illness and the high cost of liability insurance.

If you are interested in learning more history about the bathing beauty craze and the Granite Dells, SHM volunteer and antique dealer/collector Debra Matthews will be giving a free presentation entitled Bathing Beauties on August 15 at 2pm at the Sharlot Hall Museum.

“Days Past” is a collaborative project of the Sharlot Hall Museum and the Prescott Corral of Westerners International (www.prescottcorral.org). This and other Days Past articles are also available at www.sharlot.org/library-archives/days-past. The public is encouraged to submit ideas for articles to dayspastprescott@gmail.com. Please contact SHM Library & Archives reference desk at 928-445-3122 Ext. 14, or via email at dayspastprescott@gmail.com for information.