Most people know the Utah town of Payson because of the movie Footloose. In 1984, Kevin Bacon came to town and danced his way to mega-stardom. Back then, Payson was a sleepy town of about 8,500 with quaint farms, junk yards and open spaces. It offered the traditional conservative values that make Utah County such a wonderful place to raise kids. Today, Payson boasts almost 20,000 residents, and plenty of kids who are great dancers. Not bad for a place of only 8.7 square miles.
Despite its growing population, Payson still works hard to foster a small-town environment. During the summer, the city hosts three annual events: the Scottish Festival, the Salmon Summer, and Onion Days. Originally honoring their annual onion harvest 84 years ago, the festival was officially recognized by the state in 1933. The event hosts pageants, a carnival, talent shows, a parade and several competitions.
“It’s like being in a small town you see in the movies,” says Andrew Christofferson, who grew up in Payson and returns every year for the festivities.
At the heart of the city sits a massive old brick building, the Peteetneet Museum. Originally founded as a school in the late 12800s, the historic building has since been restored and hosts over 34,000 visitors a year. The name Peteetneet comes from a Ute chief who lived near the area. After the settlement of the pioneers, the name was changed to Payson after James Pace.
Payson’s ties with Hollywood don’t end with Kevin Bacon’s famous tractor ride. Singer and songwriter Jewel Kilcher (aka, Jewel) and world-famous animator and film producer Don Bluthe both claim Payson as their hometown.
The physical city itself hasn’t changed much in recent years. More local businesses have emerged, but the one-way downtown strip resembles how it looked in the 1940s and 50s when “Main Street America” dominated small towns. More corporations have moved in, but locals are hoping to revitalize the area to increase local businesses.
Payson has always had a strong agricultural presence as well. “Payson produces the second largest amount of cherries in the nation,” says local David Moody. Payson Fruit Growers supply dried tart cherries to many national cereal and health bar makers.
Like many of today’s small towns, Payson’s borders now seamlessly blend with neighboring towns such as Salem and Spanish Fork. But Payson works hard to maintain its own identity in the challenge of its growing community.
“It’s a great place to raise my family,” says Moody. “I grew up here and I’m glad my children are going to as well.”