on Godly ground . . .
Interior's First Church
By Jan Thacker - as printed in the Great Alaska Journal
Editor's Note: A complete history of the First Presbyterian Church was
written in 1989 by Charles Gray, publisher emeritus of the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner, who
drew from founder S. Hall Young's biography, the Rev. Gene Straatmeyer's doctoral thesis,
interviews and personal observations. We have liberally borrowed from Gray's delightful
history to spotlight this stately first church of the Interior.
To most people visiting Alaskaland, the chapel snugged so serenely next to Wickersham
House seems to have been there for at least a century. In truth, this grand old church
didn't arrive at its present site until 1966. To tell the history of how it came to spend
semi-retirement at Alaskaland, is to tell the history of the Presbyterians and also the
Interior itself. They both grew up together.
Not long after the waves of the Chena River washed up the likes of E.
T. Barnette and Felix Pedro, the Tanana Valley was swarming with gold seekers,
prostitutes, and entrepreneurs. In their midst were a handful of missionaries determined
to preach the Gospel to this dubious group of cheechakos.
At least three Presbyterian ministers had come into the area by the
time Dr. S. Hall Young, arrived in 1904. A mere 500 people resided in Fairbanks at the.
time, and when Hall couldn't afford a downtown lot he purchased one on the outskirts of
town at Seventh and Cushman and gathered materials for the first church. Cost for the
church as well as a small cabin for a manse was $5,500. The stained glass windows that
sparkle in today's sun were originally placed in the mission cabin and reset in the new
church when it was built.
By 1905 the church had 23 members, only eight of them Presbyterians.
In the 1930s the church was moved further east on its site at Seventh
Avenue and Cushman and turned to' face Seventh Avenue. Sometime in those early years a
front vestibule and large steeple were added.
Membership rolls were burgeoning by 1931 when the Board of Home
Missions granted $10,000 for a new building. "Another $5,000 was raised locally and
the church was dedicated on Oct. 4, 1931, at a total cost of $15,950," Gray wrote in
his history. The old white church was moved to the back of the lot and used for Sunday
The church's loyal congregation was able, in 1966, to
start building a $163,000 two story Community Center annex. The land under the original
church was needed for the project and the old church was donated to Alaskaland.
"I went on (from Chena) to the larger town of Fairbanks and found a
city mostly of log houses and a few frame buildings and plenty of tents and 10,000 people
with another 10, 000 working or prospecting on the creeks nearby. Two large sawmills were
at, work turning out lumber and the sound of hammer and Saw where heard on all sides.
" Dr. S. Hall Young, 1904
Today, the Chapel is one of the diamonds in Alaskaland's crown. For
lovers, its brilliant stained-glass windows and quaint wooden-pewed interior make it a
popular site for summer weddings. For tourists, it is a welcome and peaceful respite from
the whirlwind of vacation To all residents, Presbyterian or not, it is a part of us and of
our heritage. To many, it's another wonderful reason for living in Interior Alaska.
From 1902 to 1999,
Nearly 100 Years of Ministry
Over two dozen men of God have led Sunday worship
services at the First Presbyterian church since its inception. Here is a list of these men
and a few highlights of First Presbyterian Church
1902-1903: Rev. Egbert Koonce.
1903: Rev.Charles Ensign once conducted a service in Marson's Saloon.
1904: Rev. Howard M. Frank, along with his wife, was a musician who built a
mission at Chena.
1904: Dr. S. Hall Young built the first church in the Interior.
1906: Rev. Howard Frank moved Chena to take over for Young in Fairbanks.
1907: Frank left and Young
returned for a year.
1908-1913: Rev. James Condit, from Sioux City, Iowa, was shocked at the prices,
but increased the Sunday School from seven to 100.
1913-1917: Rev. George Bruce, an ex-missionary to China, was paid $750 per year.
1917-1920: Rev. W.S. Marple arrived when many men had left for
World War I. Chena's population was down to 50, Fairbanks between 900 and 1200. But, the
railroad and Agricultural College and School of Mines were being built. Only 22 members in
the church. Marple moved to Anchorage.
1920-1922: Rev. Fred Scherer arrived during a flu epidemic and
dismal financial status. A mere $1.36 in the treasury and bills to be paid.
1926: Rev. Vernon was preaching one Sunday evening when two
masked KKK members interrupted and presented two envelopes. One contained a large wad of
cash and the other a message thanking Vernon for his vote for a territorial delegate.
1928-1940: Rev. John Youel, who long-time church members
remember as "long-winded and boring, but a wonderful, kind man who loved the
Lord," Gray wrote in his history.
1940-1942: Rev. Rolland Armstrong saw the church become
self-supporting with the influx of thousands of soldiers into the area as well as Eskimos
brought from the Arctic coast to work for the Alaska Railroad.
1942-1949: Rev. N. Harry Champlin ministered to 300 soldiers a
week through church programs,
1949: Rev. Bert Bingle, an Interior missionary, built Harding
Lake camp with the help of soldiers in 1954. Later named Bingle Memorial Camp.
1949-1952: Rev. Fred Koschmann, ex-high school and college
teacher. Under his service the "Family Altar" service was started on KFAR and
"ran for 30 years until station manager Bill Wally said it didn't fit his programming
1952: Rev. Neil Munro.
1953-1958: Rev. Victor Alfsen saw the start of
Hospitality House, back then a home for Native girls from the villages where they could
learn domestic skills.
1959-1966: Rev. Brian Cleworth greatly improved
the housing and living conditions of local Natives.
1966-1969: Rev. Dean Hickox had the dubious pleasure of swamping
out the new church after the flood of '67 and overseeing the sad financial status. Damage
included $110,000 to the church and $2,000 damage to the new manse.
1970-1977: Rev. Gene Straatmeyer, whose wife headed the Literacy
Council, was active in community and Native affairs. Credited for merging the white and
Eskimo cultures, in 1975, he took a leave of absence to complete his doctorate.
1971: James.Nageak finished a full seminary course and
ministered to the Eskimo congregation.
1975: Rev, Frank Walkup filled in for Straatmeyer during his
leave of absence.
1979-1982: Rev. Elliot Morrison started an active youth group.
1983-1987: Rev. Kernie Kostrub, a "deeply spiritual
man," left for family reasons.
1987: Mabel Rasmussen was ordained to make more effective her
1987-1995: Rev. Del Burnett, innovative and popular with the
youth, brought the church into the 20th century with computers.
1997 to Present: Rev. Andrew Ekblad arrived with his family from Wenatchee.
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