by Derryl Dumermuth
Tulare Historical Museum
Tulare was only one year old in 1873, and boasted only 25 citizens, when the town's first church, the Congregational, was born. An organizational gathering was held in the little one-room-school located near the intersection of today's Cross Avenue and J Street. Dr. J.H. Warren, "Superintendent of Home Missions for Congregational Churches in California", was invited to chair that meeting. A man of humor, he joked that he had ridden the train's cowcatcher all the way from Goshen in an effort to beat the saloons to town, but it was obvious to him that he had lost the race.
Until a sanctuary could be built, the worshippers met in the waiting room of the newly constructed depot - located in what is now the parking lot of Walgreen Drug Store. The SP agent was ordered by his superiors to permit the use of a clean and quiet place for Sunday services. Later, Southern Pacific provided the quarter-block on the north side of King Street between H and I streets for a church building and parsonage.
The first pastor, Reverend A.L. Rankin, arrived in Tulare with his wife and four children on Saturday, January 24, 1873. The family was provided a house, a two-room adobe south of town on what is now known as Pratt Street. Rankin's first morning in Tulare was one he would long remember. As the family was preparing for services two snakes were discovered slithering across the floor, a third under the cook-stove, and a fourth hiding in a closet. They were all evicted before he left for the depot and his first service. It has not been recorded whether his sermon that day was based on the serpent in the Garden of Eden.
The church was incorporated on June 25, 1875, as the "Church of the Redeemer". Then, with some financial support from San Francisco, Reverend Rankin started building a sanctuary almost single-handedly. The small building was constructed of California redwood and faced south on King Avenue, near the alley, leaving the northwest corner of King and I for a future parsonage.
Fifteen months and $4500 later, on June 11, 1876, the church was ready for dedication. Doors were not yet installed, and pews were not in evidence, but the congregation was delighted to move from the depot.
A 500-pound bell was donated by SP employees and installed in the steeple by Andrew Neff, H. Moore and Robert Goble, in time to be heard throughout the little town during the centennial celebration on July 4, 1876.
Between 1883 and 1886 the first parsonage was built, destroyed by fire, and rebuilt on the same site. Then tragedy struck in 1898 when the 22-yeear old sanctuary was consumed by fire. Rather than rebuild on the same site, its replacement, the present church, was constructed on the northwest corner of Tulare Avenue and H Street and dedicated in February 1900.
Reverend Rankin led the Tulare church until 1879. During those six years, in addition to building a congregation and a church sanctuary, he was active in civic affairs. He conducted an unofficial census each year as the infant city grew from 25 in 1875 to more than 1,000 in 1879. He persuaded the citizens to pass a tax levy of $2500 to build a school building, a two-room wood-frame structure - and then served as the tax collector to finance it.
The next two churches to be organized in Tulare were the Methodist (1883) and the Christian (1885). Their stories will be told in the Tulare Voice during the next two months.
Derryl Dumermuth is a retired TUHS mathematics teacher, author of "A Town Called Tulare", and co-author with his wife, Wanda, of "Tulare Legends and Trivia from A to Z". Both books were written as fundraisers for the Tulare Historical Museum and can be purchased in the museum's gift shop.
1. The Reverend A.L. Rankin.
2. Original Congregational Church and parsonage, NE corner of King Avenue and I Street.
3. The Congregational Church today, NW corner of Tulare Avenue and H Street.