1852 WAS AN HISTORIC YEAR
But 1852 was the historic year for our church. While Olympia was still described as a “collection of cabins, Indians and crows,” it was selected to become the capital of the proposed new territory north of the Columbia River. Perhaps it was that notoriety which drew two of the most famous clergymen of the time to visit the town late in that 1852 summer. One was the Rev. William Roberts, called “one of the greatest circuit riders of all time”; the other was, the Rev. James Harvey “Father” Wilbur, “the greatest Indian missionary ever to represent The Methodist Church.”
When they came to town, Charlie Burmeister’s saloon was the only place large enough to hold a meeting. A bit bewildered by the strange request, the saloon’s bartender finally consented to close up for a few hours and cover the barrels so that the first church meeting could be held.
Only one signal could call all the settlers from surrounding hills and valleys – the firing of the town cannon down on Water Street. Some of the faithful were expecting it as a signal of the circuit riders’ meeting, but others rushed into town afraid that the signal meant the area was under attack.
While the barrels were out of sight at that first service, the hymn-singing, prayers and preaching must have been permeated by an odor, which, years later, was to make Olympia famous.
THE ROOF COLLAPSES AT CHRISTMAS
By year’s end the Rev. Benjamin Close had been appointed Presiding Elder of the Puget Sound Missionary District. He made his home in Olympia, preaching here occasionally, while visiting and holding services in Steilacoom, Seattle, and as far away as Whidby Island. When the first Christmas service was held in Olympia’s school house on a cold December 26, 1852, it was probably Presiding Elder Close himself who conducted it. With the weight of the record snowfall on a badly-built roof, his benediction came just in time. No sooner had the strains of “Silent Night” faded with the departing congregation, than the roof collapsed.
By then, Close had recruited the Rev. John F. DeVore of Northern Illinois to become pastor in Olympia, expecting him to arrive in the summer of 1853. But as the end of summer came and stretched into fall, DeVore had not shown up. In fact, he was not to arrive for two more years.
PASTOR TWO YEARS LATE
Here’s why. A merchant named Captain LaFayette Balch had sailed his brig loaded with merchandise to Olympia in 1850, hoping to open a store here. But Col. Simmons did not welcome the competition and “encouraged” Balch to settle instead at Steilacoom. In August of 1853, Balch heard that a ship heading for Seattle’s Alki Point carried a Methodist minister bound for Olympia. He decided to intercept the ship and convince the minister to settle instead in Steilacoom. As Capt. Balch and two others raced by canoe to Seattle to meet the ship, his story grew. Balch implored DeVore to come to Steilacoom, pleading that Olympia already had a minister, Presiding Elder Close, that smallpox was near epidemic stages there, and that Indians were threatening to attack the capital.
Apparently the pledges were adequate, for DeVore went to Steilacoom and had a Methodist church organized by nightfall of the day he arrived. By the end of the year, the Steilacoom congregation had built the first church structure north of the Columbia River, while Olympians were still wondering what had happened to their pastor. Sadly, much later, after many good years of service, the Steilacoom church was abandoned. In 1855, DeVore finally moved on to Olympia, well equipped for the challenges of founding another new church. He and the congregation decided to purchase a lot for $150, offered by an owner moving on to other parts.
Next, he approached Capt. Crosby for lumber from his mill at Tumwater Falls, which then marked the southern tip of Budd’s Inlet. Crosby, a Roman Catholic like his descendant Bing, promised he would contribute all the lumber DeVore could “get down to Olympia in only day without help of man or beast.”
First Building of the Methodist Church in Olympia
The enterprising pastor chose a day with an afternoon ebbtide, when the tide flats were dry in the morning hours. He arrived early with his long list of needed lumber and began his one-man effort to carry and drag it all to the tide flat. There, he lashed it together into a raft. By afternoon, Crosby was aghast as he watched the minister float away toward Olympia with all the lumber he needed for the new church. Only the sills remained to be cut from trees on the church site. They built a one room church with a lean-to for Sunday school. The construction of that first building must have been solid, for the structure survived four separate moves around the downtown Olympia area, finally ending its days as a rooming house, later destroyed by fire.
When the congregation was organized in 1852, it boasted a charter membership of twelve: Mr. and Mrs. Daniel R. Bigelow, Mr. and Mrs. John Dickenson, Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Hall, Mr. and Mrs. Henry Chapman, Dr. R. M. Lansdale, Mr. and Mrs. William Wright and Miss Babb. The membership grew rapidly, especially the Sunday school. Rooms were added at the rear of the building in 1883 and again in 1887. But by 1897, a movement was started with the encouragement of the Rev. O. W. Mintzer to erect a new building on the corner of Fifth Avenue and Adams Street. This larger building dedicated March 3, 1901, erected at a cost of $8,008. Either the pastor, R. C. Glass, or a layman of the church must have been an extraordinary fund raiser, for they collected $2,250 at the opening service.
OLYMPIA: A CENTER OF HIGHER EDUCATION
Not only Sunday school but higher education was important to Olympia’s early Methodists. In face, with a slight turn of events Tacoma’s University of Puget Sound might be here in Olympia. In October of 1856, Rev. DeVore was promoting the opening of a new Olympia school, the Puget Sound Institute. Daniel R. Bigelow gave the land and housed the faculty. Rates for an 11-week quarter were: “Primary, $5; Common English, $6; Higher English, $7.50; Music, $20; Ancient and Modern Language, Drawing and Painting, $3. Incidental expenses for fuel added.”
In 1857, the school reorganized as the Puget Sound Wesleyan Institute, named for Methodism’s founder, John Wesley. A financial drive was launched to build it as a major university. Daniel Bigelow was elected president of the Board of Trustees. The goal of the school was to “answer the purposes (educational) of our Territory at least until our Territorial University is completed.” By 1860 the people of Olympia had contributed $5,000 in cash and property; our Methodist Board of Missions had pledged $5,000; Bishop Scott had pledged $5,000 from the sale of mission property at The Dalles, Oregon; and there was a bill in the Territorial Legislature to incorporate the school as Puget Sound Wesleyan University. Only the Methodist annual conference approval was needed to begin a drive in the eastern states. But other events intervened. With Lincoln’s election as president and a civil war threatening, the conference refused. As the Pioneer and Democrat newspaper reported, “The conference has blocked the wheels, and for a while, at least, the wagon must stop.” There were two more attempts to keep Olympia as the educational capital of the Territory, but the wagon never fully got rolling again.
Later, in 1876, the Olympia Union Academy began a three-year struggle, and in 1883 the Olympia Collegiate Institute started in a building on East Bay Drive. The largest graduating classes were: 1889 with 20 graduates, 1890 with 19, and 1892 with 16. But from among these alumni there emerged: “clergymen, soldiers, lawyers, physicians, legislators, educators, state and county officials and people prominent in industrial areas in the state and elsewhere.” By 1894, “hard times” and the opening of the competing state university forced Olympia Methodists to conclude their last attempt at maintaining a college and to close its doors. The school’s building was used for a time as the Thurston County Courthouse. Officially, the Olympia institutions joined forces with the University of Puget Sound, opened in Tacoma in 1888.
GROWTH BRINGS CHANGE
By 1913 the congregation of First Church was again overcrowding its church building, especially its Sunday school space. So, in 1914 the entire building was lifted and a basement was built below to provide kitchen and dining areas, as well as class room space. A new parsonage was also built. But much of downtown Olympia had been built on reclaimed tide lands, so the church basement, like that of the parsonage next door, was subject to occasional flooding at very high tides. Often, the women splashed around the kitchen in galoshes while preparing church dinners. One heavy woman even fell through a floor board and found herself knee-deep in mud. A pipe organ was installed in 1924.
As the depression ended and World War II loomed on the horizon, times began to improve financially. The lack of space again suggested the need for a new building. In 1940 the “Provident Fund” was begun, looking towards the purchase of a new site.
1949 EARTHQUAKE WRECKS CHURCH
Just before noon on April 13, 1949, Hilda (Mrs. Elmer) Jones was directing a dozen women in the church kitchen, preparing for their Women’s Society of Christian Service luncheon. Suddenly, dishes rattled, cupboards flew open, the entire building began to creak and gown, and with a muffled rumble, the floor began to roll. That infamous earthquake registered 7.1 on the Richter scale and left the 35-year old frame church building condemned.
For six months Sunday services were held in the Olympic Theater where the choir robed in the theatrical dressing rooms under the stage. At times, the only light for services came from one huge bulb used by the theater’s cleaning women. The Bible class met in the theater lounge. Smaller meetings were scheduled in homes and a nearby funeral parlor, until the church was repaired enough for temporary use.
Under the leadership of the Rev. William E. “Skipper” Callahan, Jr., the congregation quickly unified around a building plan. A new site was selected and purchased that fronted on the capitol campus at 11th and Columbia Streets. Plans were drawn for a magnificent new building. Church members busied themselves cutting trees and clearing the site. But before construction could begin, the state claimed the new lots for location of its General Administration Building.
Finally, a three-acre location on Legion Way at Boundary was chosen, and members marched in a triumphal procession from the old site up Legion Way to the groundbreaking in 1952, while also celebrating the 100th birthday of the congregation. Remembering their past experience, a reinforced concrete design was selected that became virtually earthquake proof. (Later, this was found to be true in the February 28, 2001, 6.8 Nisqually earthquake that shook the city, made the church parking lot roll, but did little damage to the 50-year old building.)
The new setting provided easy access from all parts of the community, adequate parking and possibilities for expansion. On August 1, 1954, the new sanctuary was occupied, costing some $420,000, but with a remaining debt of only $100,000.
ART, MINISTERS, AND MISSION OUTREACH
While each pastor has filled a unique place in the congregation, one of the most visual contributions was made by the Rev. Walter A. MacArthur. Coming in 1960, this skilled artist led the congregation in building colorful Nave windows for the sanctuary and in designing art glass windows for the Chancel known as the Glory Windows.
This congregation has been responsible for lifting up a number of candidates for the ordained ministry. These have included: John R. Qualley, Larry Baker, David Johnson, Carol Johnson, Eleanor Swoboda, Ruth Gray, Gisela Tabor, Donald Shipley, Joy Martin and Carolyn Peterson.
Mission outreach has been a two-way process at First Church. Support for World Service, Advance Specials and other missionary gifts has been sent away in generous amounts. In addition, one fo the congregation’s most historic organizations, the Mission Sewing Group, made literally miles of bandages, which were sent to a mission hospital in Nyadiri, Rhodesia (now the Republic of Zimbabwe).
Moving in the other direction, members of this faith community brought two Dutch refugee families to Olympia after World War II: the Tony and Mary Kroon family and the John and Trudy VanDyk family. Later, they also sponsored students from Sweden, Holland and Germany. After the Vietnamese War, they welcomed more refugees, providing help and housing for two families from Vietnam: the Phuc Cam Hunh family and the Vien Van Bui family. When southern Rhodesia was in turmoil, the church again sponsored the Nyasha Sachirarwe family as they attended college.
When Olympia’s new Capital High School was not finished in time for the opening of school in 1975, nearly a third of the fall classes me in the church.
OTHER METHODIST WORK IN THE REGION
While First Church is proud of its pioneer history, it is neither the earliest nor the only Methodist work near Olympia. It was in April of 1839 that a former ship’s carpenter, William Holden Wilson, began his work among the Nisqually Nation, erecting a mission house ten miles northeast of Olympia on Puget Sound. The next year the Rev. John P. Richmond came from Illinois to do work there. He became the first Methodist missionary assigned to the future Washington Territory. Richmond performed the first marriage of European Americans in the present state, delivered the first Fourth of July oration and his wife gave birth to the first European American child on Puget Sound. The Nisqually Mission was short-lived, as it was turned back to the native Americans in 1842.
Tumwater Church Begins in 1870
The church in Tumwater is also historic with a Methodist pastor appointed to the community in 1870, and the church organized in 1872 with 19 members. It was Olympia First Church’s pastor, the Rev. A. C. Fairchild, who officiated at the organization. Captain Crosby was again cautiously generous. “I’ll give as much as my friend Barnes,” he promised when asked for a donation to begin the new church. Enthusiasm spread, $1,300 was raised in one day, plus materials and labor, and the building was dedicated, debt-free, in June of 1872. The old church on a hillside overlooking Tumwater Falls is now a designated “historic site.” It was sold in 1968, and the present building occupies a site on Lakepark Drive near Barnes Lake.
St. Andrew’s Begins as a Sunday School
First Church members had a more direct hand in starting St. Andrew’s Chruch in the Tanglewilde area of Lacey. The J. W. Farmer family organized a neighborhood Sunday school in their home with 40 children in 1958. First Church leaders gave their enthusiastic encouragement and support toward developing a new church in that area. In fact, the First Church pastor, the Rev. Robert A. Uphoff, loaned the director of Christian Education, Commission on Education chairperson and other leaders to assist in the planning. St. Andrew’s Methodist Church was organized in 1960 with 26 members meeting in Lydia Hawk Elementary School. The present building was completed in 1964 to serve the growing areas of Lacey and east Olympia.
PASTORS WHO HAVE SERVED THE FIRST UNITED METHODIST CHURCH
1853 Benjamin Close
1854 William Roberts
1855 John F. DeVore
1856 Isaac Dillon
1858 John W. Miller
1860 Nehemiah Doane
1861 Christopher Alderson and George W. Roork
1862 Asher C. Fairchild
1863 Corrington Gavitt Belknap
1864 David E. Blaine (nominal appointment)
1865 Charles Carroll Stratton
1867 George H. Greer
1868 Sylvester H. Mann
1870 Asher C. Fairchild
1872 William McPheeters
1873 Luther T. Woodward
1874 Julius T. Wolfe
1877 Albert A. Atwood
1878 William Roberts
1879 Johnston McCormac
1880 Daniel Bagley
1881 David G. LeSourd
1883 Daniel W. Cameron
1885 Alexander B. Bruner
1886 Richard H. Massey
1888 George A. Landen
1890 Thomas B. Ford
1891 Francis E. Drake
1892 S. Alonzo Bright
1894 Andrew J. Joslyn
1895 George H. Feese
1897 Ollin W. Mintzer
1899 Robert C. Glass
1902 Joseph W. Satterthwaite
1905 Francis A. LaViolette
1907 John W. Flesher
1908 Charles E. Todd
1910 Charles A. Bowen
1914 Newton M. Temple
1917 John H. Secor
1919 Albert H. Lathrop
1921 John M. Canse
1925 Otto F. Krieger
1928 Elijah H. Longbrake
1931 Samuel J. Chaney
1935 Robert Brumblay
1939 Paul H. Ashby
1945 Harold E. Bashor
1946 Alexander P. Aiton
1947 William E. Callahan, Jr.
1957 Robert A. Uphoff
1960 Walter A. MacArthur
1970 J. Alan Justad
1971 Herbert G. Luscombe, associate
1973 Paul J. Beeman
1974 Coriless V. Hanson, co-pastor
1978 Marion Kline, associate
1982 Richard S. Smith, associate
1985 Larry L. Speicher
1986 Ruth Gray, associate
1991 Leah J. Mikel Wells, associate
1992 Kathryn B. Everett, associate
1996 Dale S. Cockrum
1998 Joy M. Martin, deacon
1999 Carolyn Peterson, deacon
2000 Donald S. Shipley, associate
2008 Jan Van Pelt
2009 Joanne Coleman Campbell
2010 Golden Neal, associate
2012 Ruth Marston, associate
2014 Peter K. Perry