In its third century - Oaks Pioneer Church
You never know what's on the other side of the hill, or around the bend.
A surprise discovery for me happened on an historical tour of the town of Milwaukie – when our guide, Eric Wheeler of "Positively Portland Walking Tours", paused in front of St. John's Episcopal Church, at 20th and S.E. Jefferson Street.
As we were glancing over the architectural features of the brick façade of today's modern St. John's Church, I noticed in the west wing of the church a huge display window. And, in this window was a large scale model of Oaks Pioneer Church in Sellwood.
If you're not familiar with that quaint little structure, which sits at the corner of S.E. Grand and Spokane Street in Sellwood, it's one of three buildings in that neighborhood that are on the National Register of Historical Places. The other two are the Sellwood Streetcar Car Men's Clubhouse, at Marion and S.E. 11th; and the former Sellwood Community Center, at S.E. 15th at Spokane, which was recently taken over by the community – with the support of the neighborhood association, SMILE – and renamed "Sellwood Community House".
As I walked over to that window of the church to verify my discovery, my first thoughts were, what is a model of the Sellwood Oaks Pioneer Church doing in the town of Milwaukie? Nobody on the historical tour could answer that question. I doubt that even the residents of Sellwood would have recognized that this scale replica in Milwaukike was the same little white church now in their neighborhood – because Oaks Pioneer Church has been altered, through the years, since it arrived by barge, and was trucked up Spokane Street to its current location.
But there's quite a story here, so let's start from the beginning. And a good starting point would be to research the history of St. John's Episcopal Church in Milwaukie, since that was where the scale model was found.
In 1849 – we learn from the City of Milwaukie website – Lot Whitcomb, William Torrance, and Joseph Kellogg laid out the street plat for the town of Milwaukie. By the following year, the town was a bustling metropolis of 500 residents, two hotels, a Post Office, a sheet iron and cooper plate works, a shoe store, several general stores, four mills, a waterfront warehouse with a wharf, and a new school. Several saloons were also available to keep the boisterous and hardy workers satisfied during the evening hours – but, as yet, no churches. That was soon to change.
In the book, "St. John's the Evangelist Episcopal Church, A Place in History 1851-2001," written by Carol Stein, we learn that three people led the effort to found the first Episcopal Church in Milwaukie – Reverend William Richmond, an appointed missionary from the Missions Board in New York; Reverend St. Michael Fackler, who was already in Portland; and an energetic local resident – a Mr. Boys.
When Milwaukie resident Mr. Boys heard the news that a new Episcopal missionary, Reverend William Richmond, had just arrived in Portland, he was intent on finding out if the clergyman would be interested in ministering to the tiny village of Milwaukie. With a small rowboat that he kept nearby, Mr. Boys paddled across the Willamette River to listen to the Reverend Richmond's first sermon. He then convinced the Reverend, after the service, to make a trip to his hometown, and see if he would be welcomed among the townspeople.
The very next day, the missionary was picked up by boat and rowed east across the river; he was escorted to a podium, where a few people had gathered to see and hear him. Contemporaneous accounts suggest that Richmond delivered one of his best sermons, accompanied by the reading of prayers by St. Michael Fackler. So – lo and behold – on December 10th, 1851, with the backing of several of the people who had been present at his first sermon, the congregation of St. John's Episcopal Church was formed.
The founder of Milwaukie, Lot Whitcomb, donated two lots (properties, rather than members of his family), as well as an unfinished building that could be used as their place of worship. This building was made of heavy timbers sawed in Lot Whitcomb's own lumber mill, its framework joined with wooden pegs.
Weekly sermons were jointly shared between Reverend Richmond and Reverend Fackler; in 1852, it is recorded, nearly eighty people showed up for the evening sermon. For the first few years, this little church was also used as a meeting place for gatherings of townspeople for special celebrations, in addition to religious services.
But Lot Whitcomb was so impressed by the turnout of the congregation for sermons that he decided the building should be used for religious services only – and he donated a church bell. It was rumored that the bell had formerly been on a steamboat that traveled around the dangerous Cape Horn trade route, at the tip of South America. (In his earlier days, before he settled in Milwaukie, Whitcomb had built the first steamship in Oregon which he had called – wait for it – the "Lot Whitcomb". And then he started a shipping company near the waterfront.) The bell that Lot donated stayed in Milwaukie, and is currently installed in the steeple of today's modern St. John's Episcopal Church.
But, back on Sunday, February 18th, 1855, Bishop Thomas Fielding Scott officially consecrated the first structure as St. John's Episcopal Church of Milwaukie, and a belfry was installed to support Whitcomb's bell. Additional donations, and volunteers from the congregation, helped physically to turn the church building around, to face the Willamette River – and an additional ten feet was added to its length. While it then was sparsely furnished, a pot-bellied wood stove was there, to keep worshipers warm during the cold Clackamas County nights.
Since the new church was on the outskirts of town, church-goers had to struggle over slippery dirt roads and hillsides, in the rainy season, in order to attend services – and Bishop Scott announced his wish that the church would be moved nearer to Main Street, a more convenient location. His request was fulfilled on December 4th, 1862, when the little church was moved to 21st and S.E. Jefferson Street, and there was set down upon brick pilasters. That put St. John's Church not only closer to where people lived and gathered, but it also provided easier access for the girls of the Diocesan School of Spencer Hall to attend the services.
At about this time the Sellwood brothers, John and his brother James R.W., arrived from Salem, 40 miles south, following their horrific adventures traveling to Oregon by ship from South Carolina around Cape Horn. You see, en route, they had been attacked by natives during a stopover in Panama, in Central America.
Recovering from the misfortune in Panama of being shot in the chest, beaten, and robbed of his missionary funds, understandably it took John Sellwood a few years to recover and resume his preaching profession – but, in 1864, he moved to the small village of Milwaukie, where he purchased a small home on a few acres located an easy walking distance from St. John's Church.
For the next twenty years, John would be recognized as the self-sustaining minister rector of St. John's Episcopal Church, sharing the duties of weekly sermons with his brother James, who occasionally stopped by when he was in the area. In 1892 the Reverend John Sellwood died, and was replaced at the church by his nephew, Thomas R. A. Sellwood, who continued to serve as the lay reader.
To attract more people to the congregation, Thomas requested donations to remodel the quaint little church. He succeeded, and a new roof was built, and the siding was updated on the outside of the structure. A wainscoting of fir was laid diagonally inside the walls of the church. Gothic windows were installed on both sides of the building, and a stained chancel window was placed in the back of the church, as a gift from the Bible Class in 1889. There was a new vestibule, with a double entryway; and a steeple was built on the front of the church, with a spire and cross added, along with two long Gothic stained glass windows on either side of the entrance. A shed room was added on the east side of the building, with a chimney for the woodstove which was its only source of heat. And time passed; and the century turned.
In 1928, St. Johns Church was once again moved – this time, only a short distance across the street – to permit a basement with a kitchen and restrooms to be added, for the benefit of the school children. A "Jacob Ester" organ was donated to the church by longtime parishioner, Mrs. J. H. Willman. In the years following, the church was continually updated: A new altar was purchased, and a new furnace was added in 1946, to finally replace the pot-bellied stove, which had required cords of wood every year.
After the church had served the Milwaukie community for nearly a hundred years, its members decided it was time to build a new church structure, with administrative offices – one that would be sufficient for their current needs. The old church could only contain up to sixty people comfortably. So a call was made for local merchants and townspeople to provide funds to build a new, more modern church.
And, on October 31st, 1948, the new St. John's Episcopal Church was declared open, leaving the old church building nearby to be used as a chapel, a parish hall, and Sunday School annex.
Another decade passed. By the start of the 1960's, the Milwaukie church members and its clergy were faced with another tough decision. Plans to build a new three-story modern education center had been made, and the pioneering, original St. John's Church was right in the way. Parishioners were hoping the Oregon Historical Society would accept the little church as a donation, and preserve it for the history it contained – after all, by then it was the oldest existing church structure "West of the Rockies".
When no one came forward to rescue the historic church, the final decision by the congregation was to have the building torn town – which would mean that the oldest historical landmark in the City of Milwaukie would be gone forever. The St. John's Church had outlasted the streetcars that once traveled down Milwaukie's main street, the Standard Flour Mill Building that had collapsed on the waterfront in 1908, and the Milwaukie Library that had been in several locations – it had even outlasted the old Milwaukie City Hall.
But the cavalry was already galloping over the hill from the north, to rescue the historic building in the nick of time.
In the Sellwood neighborhood, local merchants and businessmen were looking for new ideas to stimulate and invigorate their business district. In the 1960's, Sellwood was long in the tooth, had deteriorated, and had become an undesirable community in which to raise a family or start a new business. Most of the homes were old; yards were often unkempt and overgrown; and many of the houses once occupied by early pioneers were now part-time rentals, and crime was a problem.
Portland City Commissioner Ormond Bean, having heard the news about the planned demolition of one of the oldest historic buildings in the Northwest, wanted to preserve St. John's Church. After discussing the matter with the various neighborhoods of Portland, and making endless phone calls, he happened to contact local Sellwood businessman Thomas Dent. Dent convinced a group of Sellwood-area residents to help save St. John's Episcopal Church from destruction; and he led the gathering of the necessary funds. Dent and local businesspeople, working together, not only accomplished their goal, but also organized the start of today's Sellwood Moreland Improvement League (SMILE) and helped turn around the future of the community.
Although, at that point, only a week's delay had been granted by the contactor before removal of the church, a vacant piece of land was quickly found near the entrance to Oaks Park, on land owned by the City of Portland. The Sellwood community, and other concerned volunteers from Portland, raised over $4,300, which permitted Commissioner Bean to hire LaBeck and Son to move the little church by barge from Milwaukie down the Willamette River to the Spokane Street landing in Sellwood. From the old Spokane Ferry ramp, the structure was then eased onto a truck bed and slowly hauled up the steep hill to the corner of Spokane and Grand Street in Sellwood – where it still proudly stands today.
To the applause and cheers of a small crowd who had gathered to watch the process, the historic church was placed on a brick foundation; and the steeple, which had been removed for the trip, was reattached. The historic building was officially renamed "Oaks Pioneer Church".
Over the next forty years, the Sellwood neighborhood association SMILE, and the members of the current St. John's Episcopal Church, each prospered in their respective ways.
Under the guidance of Rev. Frank Evenson, the Milwaukie church built a new parish hall where the historic church had once been – and the additional space allowed staff members the luxury of a new administrative office, a kitchen, a chapel, and additional Sunday School rooms. The original bell from the old church was installed in the Milwaukie church's steeple, and the congregation began to grow.
After the Oaks Pioneer Church reached its permanent location, Sellwood and Westmoreland community residents volunteered as carpenters, decorators, and gardeners to restore it. As Heidi Cropsy stated in her article in the January issue of THE BEE in 1996, "The entryway was restored with one of the original doors, and another was custom-made to match it." A vestry was added to the south section of the building, which included a restroom and a changing area for bridal parties and other events, and a fabulous rose garden with a brick walkway appeared, making the church a picturesque sight for photographers. In 1969 the Veterans of Foreign Wars dedicated a memorial flagpole at the church, and a brass drinking fountain was installed outside it for those walking by – or for large wedding groups which developed a thirst while there.
Inside, furnishings for Oaks Pioneer Church were supplied by the many antique shops in the area; improvements included six pews, and seven more pews that had once graced the aisles of a Quaker church in Newberg. Improvements continue, as needed, to this day.
So that is the story of how Oaks Pioneer Church came to be in Sellwood, and how the effort to put it there and restore it had the effect of bringing together the Sellwood-Moreland community, and resulting in an overall improvement of the neighborhood leading to the cachet it has today.
But – where exactly did that scale model of the original church, in the display window at today's St. John's Episcopal Church, come from? I spoke to the office staff at the church for details. They told me to contact Jim Reardon, the man who built it. A few days later, I was invited to his house – or perhaps I should say his basement, because that was where the model was made.
Reardon, now retired, spent twenty years as an engineer and a foreman, and later was a plant manager for the Willamette Iron Steel Company. Since grade school, he said, he'd always been an avid model train collector, and it wasn't long before he graduated to building scaled-down model trains, and laying track around the basement of his home. His basement today is still filled with over 400 feet of model train track he has recreated – including specific scenes, buildings, bridges, lakes, and dams that can actually be found along the Southern and Southwest Railway in Colorado.
In 2001, members of St. John's Episcopal Church planned on celebrating their 150 years of service, and Reverend Dick Toll wanted something more lasting and memorable than just photographs of people eating cake and drinking beverages. A handmade model of the original St. John's Church, he thought, would be the perfect thing to commemorate the start of the first Episcopal gathering in Milwaukie – and, who would be better to build the small structure than their own church parishioner, Jim Reardon, the trainman.
Reverend Toll and Ed Neubauer approached Jim with the idea – and, at first, he was skeptical. He didn't want to spend the time and money on a model of the old church that would be displayed outside, where weather and spectators might damage the tscale-model building. Also, he said he needed a set of drawings to follow.
A few weeks later, Neubauer returned with the original blueprints, and an assurance that Reardon's replica would be placed in a display window for everyone to see, but where they would be unable to touch it. Jim began to be excited about the project; he had been baptized in that little white church in 1953, when he was just six years old, and he was attending classes in its basement before it had been shipped off to Sellwood. Surprisingly, it took him less than three months to complete the intricate model of the old St. John's Church, and at a cost of only $800 – but it needed the help and dedication of many friends and helpers to finish the project.
Jim Harding, who lived down the street, and Reardon's wife Rose, spent hours crafting miniature shingles for the church roof, making them from full-size wooden house singles bought at the local home supply store. Several thousand miniature shingles had to be sanded and milled painstakingly, by hand; and Reardon told me, "If you want to know how many shingles we made, you may count them yourself, and let me know."
Kenny Hoyt carved the cross that stands on top of the model's steeple, made from from wood ordered specially from Alaska – and he also made some of the detailed accessories, like wooden doorknobs and door hardware. Dick Nock and Reardon's wife Rose were instrumental in constructing all the parts and gluing them together; all three worked together, side by side. Reardon manufactured the cathedral windows, pieced everything together, and also included miniature furniture inside the model church, so those viewing it could get an idea of what it looked like inside, back in the 1880's. The top of the church and steeple were designed to come apart, so the model could be transported easily through the front doors of today's St. John's Episcopal Church. Reardon also wanted to make sure the finished product could leave through his basement door, too!
Volunteers were sent to pick up the St. Johns replica for the "Milwaukie Dayz Festival and Parade" held in May of 2001, and Brian Neubauer, Ed's son, promised that the church would be in good hands. Loaded onto a flatbed truck, Brian suddenly had to take evasive action when the parade driver rounded onto Main Street, heading straight for disaster – the Southern Pacific Railroad bridge by Kellogg Creek.
Realizing that the steeple wouldn't clear the bottom of the bridge, Brian quickly removed the top of the steeple just as the truck drove under the steel girders. The small church survived being demolished by the metal beams, just as the original St. John's Church back in 1961 had been rescued just hours before its planned demolition.
The large scale model of the little white church that was once a part of the Milwaukie community can now be viewed in its permanent resting place at 2036 S.E. Jefferson Street in downtown Milwaukie. Or, perhaps easier, you can stay in Sellwood and see the original! And perhaps you'd like to book a wedding, a christening, or a memorial service – have a family reunion, or a concert – or even meet today's St. John's congregation this Labor Day, when they will come visit their original church in Sellwood.
You can book a time and date of your choice in Sellwood's historic Oaks Pioneer Church for your special event by going online at www.OaksPioneerChurch.org, or by calling Lori Fyre at 503/234-3570.
Needless to say, your special event can be just as historic and unforgettable as the quaint building it takes place in – Oaks Pioneer Church, on the northwest corner of S.E. Spokane and Grand.
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