When Ashland organized its first church congregation, Abraham Lincoln was president, the Civil War raged on and Oregon was only five years old.
The First United Methodist Church will celebrate its 150th anniversary Sunday with a community service and potluck starting at 10:30 a.m. at the church, 175 N. Main St.
Members began meeting in 1864, hosting circuit riders in their houses for the first decade. They built the church in 1874, on North Main at Laurel streets, where it stands today.
Strolling about the antique structure, the church's historian, Linda Monroe, points out where she was baptized in 1943 and married to Dale Monroe in 1960. Linda and Dale's parents and grandparents were members, starting in the 1930s, when they fled the Dust Bowl of the Great Plains.
Linda Monroe rings the original church bell and points out the church's foundation stones, bearing the date 1874 and chiseled by stonemason and church member J. H. Skidmore of Ashland Academy. Across Laurel Street towers a giant cypress tree, planted in 1905 by church member Ross Eliason. Now it stands in the yard of the old Briscoe Elementary School.
The church added stained glass and expanded in 1908. In 1987 it expanded again, this time adding Wesley Hall — which hosts a Montessori School, Rotary Club, Uncle Food's Diner and Tasty Tuesdays, a La Clinica health van, practice space for Siskiyou Singers and Peace Choir, three AA groups and a First Friday Art Walk for grade school children.
Monroe urges members to write memoirs of their church life and has assembled a sizeable collection going back many generations. In hers, Monroe recalls fundraising for stained-glass windows honoring kin killed by a landmine in the Battle of the Bulge of World War II.
Church potlucks and dinners were a main part of the congregation's social network. Monroe's father, who owned the creamery across from Lithia Park playground, would bring 2.5-gallon cans of ice cream for dessert — always a big hit.
"My grandfather," she recalls, "helped dig out the church basement. ... He was 6 feet tall and thin, so he was the one who could crawl through the hole to push out the dirt."
In a memoir, Albera Apenes notes the mellow glow of sun through the stained glass, adding it's "a refuge from the outside world. ... I have been told this room is haunted. That is true. If I sit quietly, alone during a prayer vigil, with the eyes and ears of my heart opened, I will hear them. The walls are saturated with the presence of the men and women who established and built this sanctuary. ... I can hear the cries of little children brought to the altar for baptism (and) the timid, quavering voices of teenagers as they testify to their acceptance of Christ."
Dan Mackay's memoir recalls members of the congregation in the mid-20th century being aghast at playing cards, dancing or "frivolous activities" — and objecting to new translations of the Bible. He had to memorize the 23d Psalm and recite it in front of the church, a travail "akin to teaching a mule to talk," he jokes.
In a program celebrating the church's 75th anniversary in 1939, a historical sketch notes, "If, during these 75 years in this community, the church has helped men and women and younger folk and little children to a larger vision of life and its relation to the Kingdom, then in truth, the pioneer founders and leaders of this church did built better than they knew."
John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at email@example.com.