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  • Writer's pictureDerryl Dumermuth

Early Churches of Tulare


Tulare was only one year old in 1873 and boasted only 25 citizens when the town's first church, the Congregational, was born. Organizers held a gathering in the little one-room-school located near today's Cross Avenue and J Street intersection. Dr. J.H. Warren, "Superintendent of Home Missions for Congregational Churches in California," was invited to chair that meeting. He joked a man of humor that he had ridden the train's cowcatcher from Goshen to beat the saloons to town, but it was apparent that he had lost the race.

Until they could build a sanctuary, the worshippers met in the waiting room of the newly constructed depot - located in what is now the parking lot of Walgreens Drug Store. The SP agent was ordered by his superiors to permit a clean and quiet place for Sunday services. Later, Southern Pacific provided the quarter-block on King Street's north side 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, he discovered two snakes slithering across the floor, a third under the cook-stove, and the fourth hiding in a closet. They were all evicted before he left for the depot and his first service. History has not recorded whether he based his sermon on the serpent in the Garden of Eden.

The city incorporated the church 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 street for a future parsonage.

Fifteen months and $4,500 later, on June 11, 1876, the church was ready for dedication. They had not yet installed doors, 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 fire consumed the 22-year old sanctuary. Rather than rebuild on the same location, its replacement, the present church, was constructed on Tulare Avenue and H Street's northwest corner 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. Rankin 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 $2,500 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 organized in Tulare were the Methodist in 1883 and the Christian in 1885.


Sometime before 1880, a small group of Methodists began meeting in a room adjoining the bar of D.W. Madden's Lake House, a downtown hotel located on the northwest corner of Tulare Avenue and K Street, the current site of County Bank. Given the Methodist's early leadership in the cause of temperance and prohibition, it is indeed ironic that those first meetings should take place so close to the lair of "demon rum."

In 1882 the local Methodists, assisted by a $250 loan from the Church Extension Committee, built a sanctuary for the "First Methodist Episcopal Church" at Kern and G. The building was a small single-story wood-frame structure, painted white, and facing south on Kern Avenue. A small narthex was located just inside the front door, a Sunday school room on the North behind the chancel, and a raised choir loft in the northwest corner. February 12, 1883, became the church's official birthday when the State of California issued Articles of Incorporation on that date. The trustees who signed that document were Madden, Thomas Turner, Isaac Nantz, L.A. Pratt, and L.J. Morrow.

In 1886 a 1,050-pound bell was purchased and installed on a five-foot wooden platform just east of the sanctuary, and then in 1903, a 30-foot steel tower replaced the platform. Every Sunday, the bell rang to announce that the church was open for learning and worship; they tolled the bell for funerals. After they built the new church in 1913, they sold the bell.

In 1963 Dr. Robert Young, longtime Tulare dentist, remembered that early building: "You could walk along the sidewalk on G Street and stand there and look in the windows, listen to the sermon, or disturb the sermon if you wanted to. Heating facilities were limited to a large iron stove situated by the front door. Most of the congregation sat around that stove in the winter, leaving plenty of front seats. Ventilation in the summertime was aided by opening the windows - no air conditioning or anything of that sort".

By 1910 the 28-year-old church building was miserable, and discussion was underway concerning a new church's construction. Phoebe Poe, speaking at the 50th anniversary of the incorporation, recalled that "members brought old newspapers to spread over gaping holes in the floor to keep out the cold" during winter months. The replacement, a massive brick structure, was soon completed on the same site and dedicated on June 29, 1913.

A legend concerning the construction of the roof persists to this day. It seems that the builders had finished with the walls and were puzzled about how to complete the top. According to the story, a man passing through town on the train noted the activity and investigated. He provided the solution to the problem, stayed a few weeks until he helped finish the roof, and then left town on the next train. Some insisted that he must have been an angel - an angel with a degree in engineering.

Two of the most impressive features of the historic building are the 17-rank pipe organ installed through the generosity of Mr. & Mrs. George Swall in 1921, the 20 stained-glass windows dating from 1913, and the modern one dedicated in 1983 - the Centennial Window.

The church auditorium was the largest in Tulare and served as the site for community and school affairs for many years. For example, the two-year-old church held the 1915 Grammar School Commencement.

In 1942, while World War II raged in Europe and the South Pacific, Mr & Mrs. A.L. Loomer offered to present to the church a set of amplifiers as a memorial to their son, Barney, lost in naval action near Java on February 27, 1942. The speakers were installed on the sanctuary roof in a cupola, mostly built to house them. Every Sunday morning, organ music was broadcast throughout the neighborhood, announcing to all that the Methodist Church was open for worship. Unfortunately, some of the church's neighbors complained that the loud "noise" disturbed their sleep, so they turned down the volume, and a few years later, discontinued the broadcasts.


In 1885, A.W. DeWitt, James Brown Zumwalt's father-in-law, gathered together a group of neighbors to establish Tulare's third church.

Affiliated with the Disciples of Christ, or Christian Church, the first meeting place was in the one-room Enterprise School west of Tulare.

One Sunday in February 1886 became a day of special significance when a young girl, Etta Moody, became the new church's first convert. The ceremony took place in Cameron Creek, at "the crossing" as the school did not have a baptistery.

The church soon outgrew the little school building, and in 1886 it moved to a new site at the northeast corner of Tulare Avenue and G Street. The new building featured an impressive steeple, which has long since disappeared.

"Meeting Stairs" gave access to the sanctuary, a common thing in nineteenth-century churches throughout the south. In their floor-length dresses, ladies were accustomed to using one set of stairs, gentlemen the other. After all, if a man were to follow a woman up a single stairway, he might catch a glimpse of feminine ankles.

On April 24, 1887, the public officially dedicated the church after an expenditure of $9000. On that day, 85 worshippers signed a "Church Covenant." Between 1924 and 1939, they enlarged the auditorium, created a basement social hall, and built Sunday-School rooms. The sanctuary is the oldest continuously operating church building in Tulare.

In 1948 the late Walter Ray, a long-time church member, bequeathed $138,000 to his church. Using Ray's donation as a starting point, they built a new campus consisting of a sanctuary, social hall. Also, they made an administrative unit at the northeast corner of Pleasant Avenue and M Street in 1960-61. In 1964 they added a small chapel donated by Harry & Vilma Morrison as a memorial to Thomas & Lorraine Mitchell. They sold the old church to the Mormons, who sold it to a Spanish language church when they built their present LDS sanctuary on Merritt Avenue.

During the first three decades of Tulare's life, a total of seven churches took root in the growing community.

In 1887 the city established St. John's Episcopal Church as the 4th oldest church in Tulare, but not until 1901 was a small sanctuary built on King Avenue and G Street's northwest corner. During the mid-1950s, the congregation moved to new buildings on East Prosperity Avenue.

The organization of the First Baptist Church on June 25, 1887, made it the 5th oldest, and three years later, it built a house of worship on the northwest corner of King Avenue and M Street. In 1918, a larger brick building replaced this little chapel on the same site, and today Gordon's Electric occupies that corner. In 1964 the city dedicated the present complex at the intersection of Cross Avenue and Cherry Street.

St. Aloysius Catholic Church made its appearance in Tulare in 1888 on Kern Avenue and F Street's northeast corner. A mission-style brick building replaced that small wood-frame structure on the same site in 1925. The city razed this building in 1970 after the dedication of the present church building on Pleasant Avenue.

In 1905 the First Church of God was the seventh church to be born in Tulare. Their first meeting house was on the southwest corner of Inyo Avenue and D Street. Ahead of its time, the organizing pastor was a woman - Mrs. Mary "Mamie" Bisconer, and she continued in that capacity for the next 14 years. In 1941 this first church was replaced by a more massive and more modern structure on Kern Avenue and D Street's northeast corner. The congregation moved to its present facility on Blackstone Street in 1968, and the church sold the Kern Avenue building to the Apostolic Assembly of God.

Today more than 50 churches serve the spiritual needs of the 55,000 Tulareans.

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