First Presbyterian Church of Fairbanks

 By Charles Gray

Editor, Fairbanks Newsminer, Retired,

and elder , First Presbyterian Church, Fairbanks 

(from miscellaneous sources including S. Hall Young’s biography; the Rev. Gene Straatmeyer’s doctoral thesis, interviews and personal observations and recollections May 1989 -- with miscellaneous revisions since.) 

Prospectors who came north at the turn of the century to first explore the Klondike gold fields were followed into Alaska’s Interior by missionaries of the Presbyterian Church. It was July 26, 1899 that three ministers met at Eagle, on the Yukon River, and formed the Yukon Presbytery by authority of the General Assembly. Dr. S. Hall Young, later the founding pastor of the Fairbanks church, was moderator. He had already served 25 years in southeast Alaska after the purchase from Russia.

Fairbanks was the last of the major gold stampedes in the north. What happened next as concerns the development of the Presbyterian church follows:

1901 -- Late summer 1901, E.T. Barnett landed his goods on the bank of the Chena after a chance meeting with Felix Pedro who had just discovered gold on a nearby creek.

1902 -- By winter of 1902-03, stam-peders were flocking to Chena and Fairbanks from Dawson, Nome and Circle City. Gold was $16 an ounce.

1902-03 -- Rev. Egbert Koonce, a Presbyterian, came overland from Rampart on foot during the winter to check on the Tanana strike. He built a cabin at Chena, believing it would be the dominant town, and preached the first sermon in Tanana Valley, then returned to Rampart.

1903 -- Rev. Charles Ensign came from Eagle to build a church/hospital at Chena at the direction of S. Hall Young, General Missionary for Alaska. Before he returned to Eagle in 1904, Ensign conducted a service in Marson's saloon in Fairbanks.

The Chena Church, with Rev. and Mrs. Frank

1904 -- Rev. Howard M. Frank and his wife came to the Alaska mission field and took over the Presbyterian mission at Chena in July. Both were musicians and held services at nearby creeks.

 

Fairbanks Church, 1904

Dr. S. Hall Young arrived in Fairbanks two weeks later, finding it to be a town of cabins and tents with 500 inhabitants. Young couldn’t afford a downtown lot so settled on one at Seventh and Cushman. He built a church and frame cabin for $5,500.

1905 -- Church formally organized May 1905 with 23 members. Only eight were Presbyterians. Young was greatly encouraged because there were more women in the Fairbanks camp and accustomed to church work. Young’s wife came from Skagway. 

1905 -- Presbyterians and Episcopalians got along well, as did the Catholics, but when the Methodists showed up in 1905, Young dis-couraged them because in a declining camp, as Fairbanks eventually would be, two similar churches could not be strong. Fairbanks was becoming cosmopolitan. In 1905 the Tanana Valley Railroad was completed, linking Chena, Fairbanks and the Chatanika valley; the telegraph line was built to Valdez. The business district burned down, but was quickly rebuilt.

S. Hall Young

1906 -- Young left in June 1906 and the Rev. Frank moved from Chena to Fairbanks. Chena was declining because the seat of government was moved from Eagle to Fairbanks.

“The streets of Fairbanks always present an interesting picture with their handsome store fronts, well dressed men, fashionably gowned women and happy children ... groups of hardy miners and prospectors, horses and buggies, delivery wagons and fit teams,” one writer recorded. 

1907 -- Frank left in a year and Young returned for a year until the Rev. James Condit arrived in 1908. Population in Fairbanks was 10,000 with many more on the creeks.

1908 -- On Young’s second stay, he erected a “commodious manse.” (Also in 1908 Young sailed down the Yukon to Nome and out to Seattle, then back up the coast to the booming town of Cordova. Copper had now become the lure of Alaska. It was from Cordova that the Copper Valley Railroad was pushed to the copper mines. Young organized the church at Cordova with 40 members: editor’s note.)

(After the departure of Young) the Rev. Condit came from Sioux City, Iowa, with his wife and four children. He was shocked at the prices in Fairbanks, but cushioned by the abundance of moose, rabbits, fish and grouse. He inherited a $5,500 debt and soon paid this off. The building was improved and the Sunday school increased from seven to 100.

1908-1913 -- Condit extended the minis-try to nearby camps and was active in local organizations such as Odd Fellows, Eagles and Pioneers. When he left in 1913, the Pioneers voted him a life member.

1913-1917 -- Rev. George Bruce proved to “be a very affable man.” He came from St. Louis, but had been a missionary to China. His salary was $750 a year.

Bruce must have been tough. He quickly placed two members on the reserve roll. One displayed “infidel views” and the other went over to the “Christian Science cult.”

1917 -- With membership stable, but finances diminishing, Bruce resigned in February, 1917, and accepted a call to Juneau.

1917-1920 -- Rev. W. S. Marple arrived April 11, 1917, during one of the more dismal times in Fairbanks history. Men had left for World War I and never returned. Chena had shrunk to 50 souls and Fairbanks to somewhere between 900 and 1200. This was a very low time for the church and the town.

1917 -- However, the Railroad was being built form Seward to the interior river system at Nenana and the Agricultural College and School of Mines was just starting. The town boasted the comforts of civilization in spite of the frontier surrounding it.

1920 -- In 1920, there were only 22 dedicated members. One session member left and another refused to serve any longer, so there was no session. Marple moved to greener pastures -- Anchorage -- and wrote the local church suggesting one union church for the declining mining camp. The Methodists closed their doors and moved away. Hall Young was right!

Rev. Fred Scherer arrived October 1920 amidst bad times. There was a flu epidemic that winter and at the annual meeting, the treasurer’s report revealed only $1.36 in the treasury and bills outstanding.

1922 -- When Scherer was a delegate to General Assembly in 1922, S. Hall Young paid a visit to the church and whipped things into shape. He called a Congregational meeting and they elected Edward Hering, Milton Snodgrass and Einar Tonseth as elders. From this time on, there was gradual improvement in the health of First Church.

1923 -- In 1923, the Session was concerned with “the state of religion” in the congregation and engaged in visitations. The Board of Home Missions gave a grant of $1,000 to improve the manse.

1926 -- In 1926, Rev. Vernon was appointed to do general missionary work in the Fairbanks area, establishing Sunday Schools and giving out literature in Fox, Gilmore and other camps in the area. He was also Scoutmaster in Fairbanks. 

November 7, 1926 -- One of the strangest events to occur at the church was the appearance of two masked KKK men just as an evening meeting was closing. One of them gave Rev. Vernon an envelope with a message thanking him for his opposition to Thomas Marquim as Territorial Delegate, who had run with the support of the fisheries, steamship and mining interests against incumbent Dan Sutherland. A second envelope contained a cash contribution of no small size, it was rumored. Sutherland won. The Klansmen were reputed to be the Alaska Railroad station manager and another young man who was to become a respected long-time church member and supporter. 

JohnYouel

1928-1940 -- In 1928, Rev. John Youel became the longest-term pastor, moving here from Anchorage with his wife and son. In 1930, the church was used for classrooms when the school burned. Long time church members remember Youel as being long-winded and boring, but a wonderful, kind man who loved the Lord.

1928 -- New prosperity hit Fairbanks in the late 1920s when the F.E. Company moved in and introduced large-scale dredging. The big power plant was finished in 1928 and Fairbanks went through the great depression in comparative luxury.

Youel served the church through the good years of the 1930s. Many of the congregation went to the creeks to mine in the summer, but returned in the fall. Tourists began coming during the summers. He started a Men’s Club, Vacation Bible School, Saturday Night Club (for University of Alaska faculty and men students) and an active weekly prayer meeting.

1931 -- A long discussed church building program was finally underway in 1930 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 October 4, 1931 at a total cost of $15,950. It boasted a full cement basement with hot air furnace. The old church was moved to the back of the lot and became Sunday school rooms. it was later moved to Alaskaland in 1966 and refurbished. 

1937 -- Board of National Missions urges church to become self-supporting.

1940 -- Youel left for Anchorage and Rolland Armstrong took his place until June 30, 1942 when Armstrong resigned to take the Anchorage pastorate. He supplemented his salary with a summer job with the F.E. Company. Armstrong was later a delegate to the Constitutional Con-vention and President of Sheldon Jackson College.

1942 -- January 1, 1942, the church became self-supporting. And shortly after, there was an influx of thousands of soldiers into the Fairbanks area as well as Eskimos form the Arctic coast to work for the Alaska Railroad. The soldiers were a passing impact; the Eskimos a permanent one.

Rev. N. Harry Champlain became pastor. He came from Wrangell with his wife and children. The church ministered to a large group of soldiers and families of construction workers with many extra activities centered at the manse next door. The pastor’s wife, Betty, was a vital part of this ministry. Presbytery denied Cham-plain’s request to be an Army Chaplain because his ministry in Fairbanks was so important.

1943 -- The first Eskimo arrived in town June 12, 1943 -- Harding Katairoak -- to work for the railroad. Others soon followed. Champlain developed the Sunday afternoon service for them. Edith Tesgoseak arrived with husband Reuben. Raised by Barrow missionaries, she was small of stature, but mighty in her Christian faith and a great help to the Eskimo people. A lot adjoining east of the church was purchased.

1944-46 -- Parish workers (single women) were added in 1944 and again in 1946 when the first one left. The Mission Board picked up part of these expenses. Other workers followed on and off.

1944 -- Easter Sunday 1944 saw 900 at all services. In 1947 the church ministered to 300 soldiers a week. They added to the music and special events. A trained contralto, Emma Rose Moyer, was choir director during the war years.

1947 -- A new Hammond organ was purchased for $2,553. E.A. Tonseth was honored upon retirement as church treasurer; first elected in 1909. He served 38 years.

1949 -- Rev. Bert Bingle built the College Presbyterian Church; he had been Interior Alaska missionary since 1942, having come from Palmer where he ministered to the Matanuska settlers. Bingle ministered to soldiers and construction workers along the Alaska Highway and railroad workers along the railroad. He built Harding Lake camp in 1954, mostly with the aid of GIs. The camp was later renamed Bingle Memorial Camp.

1949 -- Champlain resigned; Fred Koschmann took his place, having previously been a high school and college teacher in Fairbanks before going to seminary.

1950 -- “Family Altar” was started February 1, 1950 at 8:00 to 8:05 on KFAR and ran for 30 years until station manager Bill Wally said it didn’t fit his programming style.

1952 -- Rev. Neil Munro arrived to serve military families living off-base. Three months later, he became intern pastor when Rev. Koschmann resigned, but considered service to military families his first priority. Munro reportedly credits the Fairbanks church with convincing him to stay in the ministry at a time when he had misgivings. Munro later served as pastor at the Sitka Presbyterian Church and as executive presbyter for the Yukon Presbytery.

1953 -- Rev. Victor Alfsen became the new pastor on May 6, 1953 after serving at Palmer for eight years. His wife, Virginia, was a charming, shy, quiet woman with a beautiful alto voice and an accomplished organist, someone recorded. All who knew her agree.

1955 -- November 9, 1955, a down payment was placed on the American Legion Hall which was to become Hospitality House. This was a home in Fairbanks for the Native girls from the villages where they could learn domestic chores and not so easily fall prey to the men in the bars. This mission has changed considerably over the years as other youth needs became more important.

1956 -- January 22, 1956, the new sanctuary was dedicated after a successful building campaign led by Rev. Alfsen.

1958 -- Vic Alfsen resigned after a period of healthy church growth, a new sanctuary and at the pinnacle of a most successful ministry. Rev. Wilbur Dierking was interim pastor. 

1959 -- Rev. Brian Cleworth came form Palmer in July 5, 1959, the year of statehood. Several people had been assisting with the Eskimo work: Bill Siemens, Rev. Elmer Parker (retired), Marion Horton, Rev. William Zeiger, Elder Choat.

1961 -- Cleworth worked hard to improve the living conditions of the Eskimo people residing in shacks in the railroad yards. In 1961, some of the houses were moved to an area in south Fairbanks near 26th and Lathrop, but it took thirteen more years before they got water and sewer lines. Cleworth was ahead of his time with social concerns in the community and was once chastised by the Session to stick more to religion.

1966 -- The original church building, which served as Sunday School rooms on the east side of the middle church and the new sanctuary was donated to Alaskaland and a new two story Community Center annex was built at a cost of $163,000.

Rev. Cleworth submitted his resig-nation for the second time and it was regretfully accepted September 15, 1966. Rev. Dean Hickox candidated in November 1966 and soon moved into the new manse on Lathrop Street with wife Mary.

1967 -- August flood did $110,000 damage to the church and $2,000 damage to the new manse. Physical help came from Barrow and Anchorage and funds were sent from many churches including General Assembly, but there was a bad financial crunch. The new budget was $43,000 for 1968, but only $24,000 was pledged that winter. Signs of disunity were appearing; the Eskimo work had been abandoned. This was the second low pointed in the church history -- the first being in the early 1920s.

1968 -- February 18, 1968, oil was struck at Prudhoe Bay ushering in another gold rush -- black gold this time.

1969 -- November 30, 1969, Rev. Hickox resigned, but the church was operating again. He saw it through the completion of the building, the flood, the rebuilding and had directed the church toward a community ministry. The Senior Citizens were using the church kitchens and the Alaska Homemakers ran their program from an office in the church. It is perhaps a paradox that Hickox later served with distinction at Barrow and on St. Lawrence Island with a renewed interest and commitment to the Native people. 

1970 -- Rev. Gene Straatmeyer candidated in August of 1970 and arrived October 1 (with his wife Jean, two daughters, and a son) amidst the expected oil boom which was delayed until the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act in 1972 and ensuing court settlements. Jean Straatmeyer headed the Literacy Council after her graduation from the University of Alaska.

1971 -- James Nageak moves to Fairbanks form the North Slope to start university studies leading to the ministry. He served as lay pastor to the Eskimo congregation. There were as many as 100 people in attendance at some afternoon services. James was the first Eskimo minister to finish a full seminary course and be ordained. He served the church at Anaktuvuk Pass for awhile and later taught Native languages at the University of Alaska, Fairbanks. 

Straatmeyer is credited with united the white and Eskimo cultures in the congregation -- relieving long existing tensions and anxieties.

1973 -- Rex Okakok was commis-sioned a lay preacher when James went to seminary. Rex later attended seminary but did not finish due to family responsibilities.

Rev. Phillip Gilbert comes to Fair-banks to take over management of Hospitality House. Mable Rasmussen was ready to retire. Gilbert later earned a doctorate and assisted as a Parish Associate, specializing in counseling.

1974-75 -- Straatmeyer was appointed chairman of the Borough’s Impact Center’s Advisory Committee during pipeline construction. He was also active in the Alaska Christian Conference, which was instrumental in getting Alyeska to provide a pipeline chaplaincy, which functioned successfully through pipeline con-struction.

Straatmeyer holds the distinction of being gaveled down by Mayor Gillam during an opening prayer at a City Council Meeting. Straatmeyer asked for divine guidance for the Council as they were to address the issue of providing a place for homeless alcoholics. Gillam said he didn’t appreciate being pressured. After a brief pause, Straatmeyer finished his prayer pretty much as he planned it.

1975 -- Rev. Frank Walkup (formerly of First Church, Anchorage) came out of retirement in Florida to fill in for Straatmeyer while on a year’s leave to work on a doctorate. Walkup was a go-getter. He promoted a new $16,000 Allen organ, a men’s choir, and numerous cosmetic improvements about the church (A man much like Hall Young must have been.)

1977 -- The Koreans petitioned Presbytery to be organized as First Korean Presbyterian Church of Fairbanks.

July 1, 1977, Rev. Claude Klaver came to North Pole to organize the new Presbyterian/ Methodist New Hope Church, sponsored to a large part by First Church. 

1978 -- Rev. Gene Straatmeyer, D. Min., leaves Fairbanks to teach at Dubuque Theological Seminary, with a responsibility for developing a Native American program.

1979 -- Mary Ann Warden, sister of James Nageak, was commissioned in June as Lay minister to the Eskimo congregation. She entered seminary in the fall of 1985 and graduated May 13, 1989. She was ordained, served as associate pastor in Juneau for several years before accepted a position as associate pastor for the Utkeagvik Presbyterian Church in Barrow, in the spring of 1998.

1979-1982 -- Rev. Elliot Morrison is called. Lathrop manse is sold so pastor can purchase own home and participate in appreciation (if any). Morrison’s wife Florence, a trained Sunday school worker, was a great help. The two of them led active youth groups. A rift grew between Morrison and the Session, and he resigned.

Church member Curt Karns, son of Ray and Eleanor Karns, entered seminary in September of 1980, graduated in 1984, and was ordained at First Church in 1984. He was soon called to the First Presbyterian Church at Wrangell and later became the pastor at New Hope Church at North Pole.

1983-87 -- Rev. Kernie (Cornelius) Kostrub and wife, Darlene, arrived from Pennsylvania. Session buys new manse for them on west side of Fairbanks. Kostrub proves to be a deeply spiritual man and although not charismatic, fitted the needs of those with such leanings. His wife assisted as a part-time paid adult training coordinator, having held suitable credentials. She did not care for the cold winters and did not like being so far from her aging parents. Kostrub reluctantly left for a co-pastor position in Gainesville, Florida, near his wife’s folks.

1987 -- Mable Rasmussen was ordained by the Presbytery, based on her faith and understanding of the Scriptures, so that her ministry in the local prison could be more effective. 

1987-1995 -- Rev. Delbert Burnett, wife and two small boys arrived in Fairbanks to assume the ministry at First Church. Accustomed to a California lifestyle, Rev. Burnett was a friendly person, innovative and popular with young people. Admin-istratively, he brought the church into the 20th century with computers, job descriptions and pay for part-time staff. Burnett established small lenten group studies and initiated two Sunday morning services -- one with contemporary and one with traditional music styles. Burnett was articulate, intelligent and spiritually sound. He left after seven years in May 1995, when he thought his contributions to this congregation were finished, but not before initiating the Assistant Pastor position filled by Rev. Doug Waltar, who left in 1997 for a solo pastor position at Post Falls, Idaho.

1997 -- The Rev. Andrew Ekblad arrives in Fairbanks from East Wenache, Washington, with his wife and three young daughters.

Hering Family: Longest Tenure

The family with the longest history of continuous attendance at First Church is the Hering Family. Agnes and Edward arrived in Dawson in 1898 and came to Fairbanks in 1904. They had eleven children, seven boys and four girls. They lived a block east of the church and attended from the time of their arrival. The family centered their life and activities on the church. All of the boys have passed on. Hering Auditorium at Lathrop High School is named in honor of Walter, who was killed while in the Navy during World War II. Of the four daughters, Pat (Rogge) and Agnes (Schlotfeldt) live in Fairbanks. Betty (Winfree) and Muriel (Johnson) have retired Outside. Muriel, the oldest, retains her membership at First Church, Fairbanks, and this makes her the oldest member of the church in terms of continuous membership. 

In Summation 

In 1996, the population of the Fairbanks area was estimated at 84,000. Church membership was 250.

First Church has spawned three churches in the area; developed a retreat center at nearby Harding Lake; established a Hospitality House, first for Native girls in town from the villages and later for delinquent youth; supported a strong prison ministry; and started a Steven Ministry that has sponsored five persons for the ministry, four of whom have been ordained. First Church was the principal effort behind establishing a Love, Inc., agency in Fairbanks and provides their facility.

From 1904 through 1996, First Church has had 18 Senior Pastors and six Assistant Pastors for such activities as prison work, youth, military personnel, Eskimo services and counseling. While their individual gifts have varied greatly, each has brought important talents at critical times in the ministry of this pioneer church.

Who Followed Whom…


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