Independence, Inyo County, California

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By Anne Margrave

Just when, in the period of the white man's occupancy of Owens valley, the influence of the church began to make itself felt, is impossible to say. We know that the famed Jedediah Strong Smith, who, legend has it, was the first white man to pass through this Valley, (in 1825), was a lover of The Book, and a man of prayer. A better-attested journey by this route was made in 1843 - the second wagon-train to reach California by the overland route, led by Joseph Ruddeford Walker. Whether its members thought of spiritual matters in the midst of earthly hardships such as they had never dreamed, before they abandoned their wagons and gear at the foot of the lake, we do not know. Nor do we know much of the beliefs and practices of the earliest miners and drivers who passed through in 1859-1860, nor of the settlers and soldiers who fought the Indians for the next few years.

But, we know that the earliest families to settle had, some of them, an anxiety for religious training and religious services. The first house was built on the site of Independence in 1861. Indian difficulties interferred {sic}with permanent settlement for several years afterwards, yet the church was organized in 1871. Before that, occasional services were held here by the Reverend Andrew Clark, the Baptist minister from "Bishop Creek", first of his calling to settle in the Valley, and by others, apparently lay preachers, among them one J. Tamblyn, superintendent of the Eclipse Mine, and a school-teacher from George's Creek, S. W. Blasdell. In 1866 or 1867 a Sunday-School was formed at the George's Creek schoolhouse, with R. M. Shucy as superintendent, and these men held services there. John A. Shucy says of Mr. Tamblyn, "He read a chapter from the Bible and talked about it so beautifully that even a small boy listened and remembered."

The Edwards family, who occupied a while the Putman stone cabin at Independence, and subdivided their homestead into a town site, were Welsh, with a religious background. "Mother" Edwards, her son recalls, thought chicken and new peas none too good for the circuit riders. "mostly Methodists" (which the Edwards' were not), who came by on horseback, making their way to their far-flung charges. She was most strict about Sabbath-keeping, and the family had a joke on her hinging on these characteristics. It seems she had confused the day of the week, and the visiting minister found her in the garden, digging new potatoes and picking peas for his dinner --on the Sabbath! It was a desire for better church connections, and better schools, that caused the Edwards, the Shueys, and the Earls, and others, to leave the Valley, while others, who kept their homes here, sent their children to live with good neighbors of former days while they secured their education.

The Blaney Hotel was occupied in 1868 by the large Blaney family, and Sunday-school was held there, the eldest Blaney daughter sometimes presiding over what her little sister, fifty years later, thought of as "church" services. This hotel was taken over in 1872 by the father of Mrs. Nettie Webb, whom many of you remember.

Mrs. J. S. Gorman once told me, of the beginnings of the Independence Church: About 1869 a minister named Warren, who she thought was independent of any organization, came to the vicinity, and with self-sacrifice and devotion began to build up a congregation, a Sunday-School, and a church property, with the help of the Earls and others. The farmers could supply him with food and with provender for his horse, and did so freely, but money was scarce. The larger part of it was apparently in the hands of the saloon-keepers, and they were the chief contributors of that commodity. Mr. Warren worked whenever and wherever he could, to get building materials -- a little lumber here, a little canvas there, etc., until at last he built a one-room house and church on the site of the present parsonage. Here, he held the first services. Later a leanto was added, at the rear, where the family lived, leaving the front room free for the church. He would gather up boxes and benches and fill the room with these seats and an improvised pulpit. At the Sunday services the room and the space outside would be crowded with listeners, both men and women, who came from all about, as far as they could ride or drive.

At one time the minister received into his family a sick woman from Aurora, and used the front room for her. On Sundays her cot would be carried into the kitchen, and she listened to the sermon from her bed. Her board-money went into the support of the church.

From the dates and other circumstances, I think the Warren that Mrs. Gorman spoke of, was doubtless the Rev. Mr. Orne, the name being confused in her mind, with the passage of many years, by association with that of Presiding Elder Warren Nims. For, in August, 1871, the Methodist Episcopal Church sent the first regularly appointed minister to Owens Valley - the Rev. E. H. Orne, who was to take charge of a magnificent parish reaching from Cerro Gordo to Benton, and taking in outlying mining camps. Headquarters were at Independence, and on the occasion of a visit from the Presiding Elder of the Nevada Mission Conference, Warren Nims, the church lots were bought (one was given, the other sold at a reduced price - $75.00, we are told), from Isaac Harris. Trustees named in the deed signed October 26.1871, were Eber Inman, G.W. Blasdell, C.B. White, J. B. Rowley, William Pollard. John Williams, and Stephen Mitchel. On these lots a small parsonage was built before June 1872.

Mr. Orne stayed until 1873. Little is known of his immediate successors, except their names. From 1879 to 1882 the pastor was F. M. Willis, some of whose grandchildren and great-grandchildren still live in the Valley. He bad a very up-to-date horse and buggy outfit, with which he traveled northwards and southwards, holding services all over the long stretches of pioneer country, so that he seemed seldom to be at home. He did some further building, however, perhaps an addition to the parsonage. His son writes: "In those days the minister's salary was paid largely in contributions of food and very little cash. I remember that father religiously kept a record of every sack of potatoes, pumpkin, or squash that was donated: . . . honey was a drug on the market, with the result that the preacher usually brought home from his trip, from two to three five-gallon cans of superb comb honey . . . We were at this time, then, in a land literally flowing with milk and honey. Owing to the size of the family, I remember that father never at any time seemed to have any difficulty keeping his salary used up. We had to eat what came in . . . He believed literally "The Lord will provide", and I think led the most care free life I ever knew.

In the seventies, and later, other than Methodist ministers held services. An arrangement was made by which given points were occupied by a different minister each Sunday in the month, and the INYO INDEPENDENT published a complicated "Church Directory" from which one might learn where to find his chosen spiritual advisor.

The church building was not begun until Warren Nims' pastorate. 1884-1885, and services were often held in the little one-room schoolhouse, sometimes in the old Masonic Hall, a few times in the court room of the second courthouse, and also in the big Mairs barn. Information given by Mr. Chalfant, and the files of the INYO INDEPENDENT, show that the church was completed between April, 1885 and June, 1886. The paper announced June 1.1886, that services held by Mr. Nims' successor, John M. Spangler, "will be in the new church".

Mr. Nims put much of his own income back into the church building. He had done the same thing in other places, devoting his life in that way to the upbuilding of pioneer churches.

The destructive fire of 1886 spared the church and parsonage. Mr. Spangler is especially mentioned in the accounts of that disaster as striving to save the doomed homes of his neighbors, forgetting the danger to his own. He seems to have been a man much liked for his energy, broadmindedness and kindness, but he stayed here only a year, going on in 1887, as missionary to Montevideo.

After the courthouse was burned, the court was held in the church, by an order dated July 3, 1886. It went to the new courthouse April 26, 1887.

The tones of the newly hung bell are praised in the INDEPENDENT of 1887, and the organization of a choir with Mrs. Matlock at the piano, is also mentioned. For some years Mrs. Matlock, mother of Mrs. Frank Krater, and grandmother of Ralph Bell, faithfully continued this service. She especially remembers the music in the days of the Rev. H. I. Winsor, who with good music and good sermons filled the church. This youthful pastor came direct from England to Independence, and on arriving found the parsonage stripped bare of furnishings. He had not come supplied for such an emergency, and was much distressed. Fortunately, Mrs. J. D. Blair, grandmother of Mrs. Marvel Schabbell, suspected the situation, and hastened to make the new minister and his family (he had three small children) welcome in the good old western way. She took them to her own home and then bestirred herself to organize a donation party: presently all the townspeople were wending their way to the parsonage with everything from food to furniture.

Another side of Mr. Winsor's pastorate is told in a letter from him -- "the very wonderful visitation of God's grace that came to us in the second year we were there." This sudden spiritual awakening came first in a young people's weekday meeting at Independence, followed by similar outpourings at George's Creek, Lone Pine, and Fort Independence. Mr. Winsor lived and preached in the San Francisco Bay region until fairly recently, passing away about July 1944. He was here 1890-1893.

The present parsonage was built in 1912 by Rev. C. J. Harrison, almost literally by his own hands. It was then finished in the brown stain of the popular bungalow style of that day.

While Charles W. Greene was pastor, in 1921-1923, came an opportunity to buy an addition to the old courthouse, which had been the county clerk's office and before that the Supervisors' room, and the home of the newly established county library. By the earnest efforts of the Ladies Aid, funds to pay the $300.00 to the county, and additional sums needed for moving and establishing it, were raised. Mrs. J. J. Singlaub, Mrs. English, and Miss Maud Parsons were among those who worked hard for this project. It now forms a combined Social Hall, kitchen, and Sunday-school room, at the back of the church.

The cottage which houses the beginner's department of the Sunday-School was bought and brought in from Aberdeen, where it had been a ranch home, in the time of Rev. D. L. Mounts, between 1932 and 1936. During this period, also, the church was remodeled, rededicated, and given the name of Pioneer Memorial Methodist Church. The fund used for this purpose was mostly from the money gathered by the people of Manzanar to build a church there, before the ranches of that locality were sold. This money had been at interest in the Conference treasury, and amounted, when turned over to this church, August 19, 1930, to $1256.62. Other funds in the amount of $380.93 were added to this.

We have mentioned the use of the church as a court room after the fire of 1886. In the nineteen-twenties, when fire had destroyed the old Masonic Hall, which housed the High School, and the Pavilion, where gatherings of all sorts were held, the High School occupied the church until the new High School building was ready. Eastern Star, the Chautauqua, the Women's Clubs, and other organizations made use of it. The Christmas tree and entertainment, sponsored by the church, was also in every sense a community affair.

Later, the rear room of the church was used as a kindergarten, and at a time when the elementary school building was crowded, it for some time housed the first and second grades. In all these ways, the church has tried to hold itself open to serve the community.

In many ways it is a community church. The only church organization in Independence, its workers often include members of nine or ten different denominations, and its members but few less former affiliations.

Time fails me to mention the work and devotion of numerous helpers, the special funds made and used, and the various organizations which have been a part of the church's life.

The huge parish which was served by the early circuit-riders was divided in the time of F.M. Willis, who left Independence for Bishop, where he was instrumental in getting a new church building. Lone Pine and Manzanar remained a part of this charge. The Lone Pine Church was probably organized about the same time as the one at Independence. At least there was a church before the earthquake of 1872. After the earthquake, in which the building where they had been meeting was demolished, the congregation was wont to gather in the Dodge home.

Their church was built in 1893. Mr. Winsor says: "The church building enterprise owed most of its success to the help of Mrs. Walter Scott, Mr. E. H. Edwards, and to the spontaneous generosity of the whole population of Lone Pine -- Roman Catholic and Protestant alike. In one year we built the church and paid for it, and left some money in the treasury."

This was not done, however, without some help from the Conference, as shown by documents on file in the County Clerk's office, which grant permission to the trustees of Lone Pine Church to give a mortgage on their lots in order to get a loan of $250.00 from the Board of Church Extension of the M. E. Church, to complete funds for the erection of their church building. The resolution to do this was passed at a meeting held in the Lone Pine schoolhouse, "where religious services are usually held at stated periods by said congregation", Jan. 14, 1893. Land for the church was given by E. H. Edwards.

The Lone Pine Methodist Church and the Lone Pine Trinity Memorial (Episcopal) Church were united under the name Trinity United Church, during the pastorate of D. L. Mounts.

In 1942 the churches of Lone Pine and Independence had grown to a point where they wished to have separate ministers, and Hugh N. Lormor was assigned to the Independence Church. Because of wartime calls upon the ministry, however, this lasted less than a year, and the two churches were again under one pastor until Feb. 1945, when Rev. Darrel MeCorkell came to Independence. His work fully proves that an independent charge is needed, here, and Lone Pine is equally well satisfied with this arrangement.

(Addenda By G. Jewett)

Since Ann Margrave wrote the foregoing history which covers the period ending in 1945, the Church has continued to grow and serve Independence and other communities.

In 1936 the Church especially honored the Pioneers of Inyo by adding to the name. It became "The Pioneer Memorial Methodist Community Church". A large boulder in front of the church was sealed with a bronze plaque on which was engraved "To The Glory of God and The Memory of The Inyo Pioneers". Behind the plaque was a small vault which held some historical papers. It was decided to open this vault in 1971, which would be the 100th anniversary of the organized church and the building of the sanctuary which still serves the community.

During the period when Rev. Darrel MeCorkell served as minister, which began in 1945. Ben Lawrence and Rev McCorkell removed the old room from the rear of the church and began to construct a new and large addition which was dedicated as the Education Unit in October 1954. This addition has several rooms for Sunday School, a large Fellowship Hall and large modern kitchen which serves the community at large as a meeting place where public affairs are discussed, pot luck meals are enjoyed, or fine meals are catered for various organizations by the women of the Church.

Reverend Fred Jarman came as minister in 1963 and during his ministry he designed and created stained glass windows for each of the windows in the sanctuary. Each window depicts a different symbol from the Bible, and are very beautiful.

The Church is now 106 years old, and during the ministry of Rev. Chas. Mitchell it continues to grow and serve Independence and other communities in the same spirit as in the many previous years it has been in existence.

{*Copied without permission from Saga of Inyo County 1977 by Chapter 183, Southern Inyo American Association of Retired Persons.}

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