Hillcrest Presbyterian Church By Rev. Winthrop Ware
Beginning in 1946 the Alaska Railroad began building quonset huts on the hill behind the railroad yard to house some of its employees. In time stores and service station and bank came to serve these people and the many others who improved the quonset huts and built houses. But in 1951 came the grandest enterprise of all, the construction of hundreds of apartments, some in modern apartment buildings of 25 families each. In 1954 the Air Force completed their 1040 family units, and Government Hill, as it has come to be called, now has an estimated population from 10,000 to 15,000 souls.
Early in 1951 our church began a mission on Government Hill. We met with limited but enthusiastic support. In November of 1952 a church was organized. The church met in a quonset hut and did all it could to serve the new community. It had kindergarten and Sunday Church School, as well as a church service conducted by the service pastor for the Anchorage area. However, it was soon apparent that the quonset hut church was not attracting very many of the folks who lived in the new and modern apartments and something had to be done.
We knew that if we had a neat, attractive church, we would have no difficulty in filling it with apartment dweller, then when they understood the program of the church, they would forget that they were only here for a year or so, and would enter into the life of the community and the worship of God. But how to do this! I believe I had my first indication on a trip I made to California and Oregon this last fall.
While in my hometown of Eugene, I talked with fellow ministers who told me of a prefabricated chapel made by the Carlton Lumber Co., of Portland, Oregon. I drove up to Portland and investigated first hand. These chapels seemed to be all we would or could desire. They were beautiful in design, easy to build, and didn’t look prefabricated. When our transport put down at Anchorage, I heard that Dr. R. Rolland Armstrong was in town and I went to him and presented the plans for the Carlton Chapel. He was highly impressed and wrote immediately to Dr. J. Earl Jackman in New York, who seemed likely impressed, but doubtful naturally of our scheme to get it erected by spring.
We were plagued with delays in beginning. The land had still to be purchased from the Department of Land Management of the Government. We had to get the foundations in before freezeup which was due any day. We found a contractor who worked frantically to have the site excavated and the forms made and the day after he poured concrete, it began to freeze. so we felt the Lord had truly been with us. But then, when we had ordered the chapel, and we had word that it was ready to ship, there was a radio operator’s strike and all Alaska-bound ships were tied up, literally. As Christmas drew near, our dream faded, and the weather turned to 20 and 30 degrees below zero. How cold we ever build a church in this weather?
The weather was still 10 degrees below the day that we unloaded the trucks which brought the chapel from Seward. The next day will long be remembered for this is the day that when we looked over all the materials it was apparent that the 2x8 boards necessary to make the 6x8 stringers to support the floor were not part of the shipment from Carlton. This meant that with our church raising scheduled for New Year’s Day, we would have just one full day to get local wood and make these supports. I was able to get the lumber, and together with Rev. John Seibert of Faith Presbyterian Church and some loyal servicemen who had a day off, we made the beams and supports, finished about 7 p.m. the day before the Great Day. So some of us went into the church-raising with sore backs and faces burned by the day in sub-zero weather.
By 8:30 a.m. New Year’s Day the crews began to arrive from the other Presbyterian churches in this area. There were men from Faith Presbyterian, First Presbyterian, Woodland Park Presbyterian, and the United Protestant Church in Palmer. They began by laying the floor which was already mounted in 4x8 panels. Then the walls were carried through the deep snow and mounted in place. The carpenters were busy directing action. Some had already begun to put the scissor beams together on the now completed floor. The walls went almost too rapidly. We had one side almost done when someone shouted that a panel for the front was missing! It would be a rather serious thing if a whole section of wall had not been shipped. We looked for it, and discovered it to our dismay; way down the all near the door in the front of the building already boxed in. We quickly halted all work on other sections and assembled thirty men on each side of the wall. We bent the wall over, pounded back the nail ends, removed the panel, replaced it with the right one, and then set the whole wall back and nailed it in place!
With some 75 men working, the building progressed quite rapidly. But at noontime, the men were hungry and they went to the quonset church for a real farm-style lunch which the women had prepared. When I went to get something in my study, I found so many men eating there, that I just couldn’t get in. There is nothing like working in zero degree weather for shipping up an appetite. The three hams the women brought were soon gone, as well as the potatoes and bread and coffee.
Meanwhile the church-raising went on a pace. Men balanced the end pieces for the walls carefully, while they nailed them in place and hoped they would not fall over. An efficient crew began raising the 24x15 foot beams. They would set the two feet of the beams in place, and then using braces would raise the end in place. Finally, all six beams were in place and the men began laying the 2x6 tongue and groove for the roof. While this went on, others began placing the windows in. By now it was dark again. Two strings of lights helped us see what we were doing. It had been dark when we started at 8:30 and now at 3 p.m., it was already dark. Almost before we knew how it happened, the building was done. Of course, a great deal of work had to be done. The last act of work this evening was the raising of the base of the steeple.
The next week saw felt paper put on the roof and battened in place. The Rev. Bert Bingle helped me one day with this job. An airplane heater was obtained to heat the church for services, as well as a large barrel stove for temporary heat. (One I made from a 55-gal. barrel.) On the last day of the roofing, I knew that if we did not raise the 15-foot spire to the steeple, it would not get done until spring. But the man I had working with me and I were unable to do it alone. So I began to look around for help. We located one fellow to help, but still needed at least another. I walked to the apartment of Capt. Robert Eckman to see if he might be able to help. He was not home, but his wife phoned him at Elmendorf AFB. He said he would come right over, as he had to come home for lunch anyway.
We waited about 15 minutes for him, and then I saw his bright blue station wagon coming. He parked alongside the church, and then another car came in behind him and parked, but then along came another and another. Until some six cars had arrived and 15 men or so got out. Almost all of the pilots of the 66th Fighter Interceptor Squadron! When we all got on the roof it was still no easy job to raise the heavy spire and to guide it into its sockets, and there was an anxious moment or two when we had it straight up and down and nothing much to keep it from toppling to one side or the other.
Has this church-raising made a change? I should say it has! It brought all the men of several Presbyterian churches together on a good project which gave them a genuine feeling of kinship, while it gave us very tangible results. Our congregation jumped from 20 to 50 the first time we met in the new chapel. Now if we can obtain permanent heat and good furniture and lighting we can expect to become a spiritual center in this community. It is a thrilling thing to bring the church to those away from home.
When Hillcrest was a Quonset By Virginia Fuller, 1951
When I first started to Hillcrest shortly after services began in the quonset hut the Sunday School was divided into two classes: the small children were taught by Mrs. J. R. Sherwood who lived across the street where the fire station now stands and Mary Ellen Franklin’s class consisted of the older boys and girls, and me! Our Sunday school class started at ten o’clock with songs and a “junior” sermon by Rev. Hackett Johnson of the Woodland Park Presbyterian Church. This was followed by the regular classes. A short time later the Rev. Fred Telecky of the Faith Presbyterian Church began to assist Rev. Johnson and conducted the services on alternate Sundays. These ministers would then hurry to their own churches for services. Before very long I had acquired a class of small two and three year olds and I have had a Sunday School class of one age or another since then except for short times spent outside. We were pretty sure of some Sunday school attendance since Mary Ellen had six children and I had three. Often the Franklins and the Fullers made up a good part of the classes.
I’m sorry I can’t remember our first Christmas in the quonset, but by the second one Helen Rex was faithfully attending our church services conducted now by the Rev. Johnson alone. She got busy and collected shall we say enough ornaments and electric lights that we were able to have a beautiful tree. Many of these ornaments were given to Helen by service personnel who were rotating; others by kind people who just shared with us. Bill Franklin went into the woods and chopped down our first tree. We also tried Easter Egg hunts for the children during this time, but soon gave it up, much to the joy of the mothers, I think. Since Easter is usually during the thaw. Can’t you imagine what hunting Easter eggs around the quonset would do to shiny patent leather shoes and frilly Easter dresses!
Due to lack of better talent, I was also the first church treasurer. Believe it or not, I had many a headache with the books before Mary Ellen took pity on me and took over. You might be interested to know I enjoy being church treasurer now and have practically no headaches! Someone has set up a system that’s practically foolproof.
Our church was slowly growing and a few more adults began attending. Mr. and Mrs. Manvil Olson and their four children were among these welcome new ones. Beulah Olson played the piano and was a great help, as often before we were without any music at all.
In 1952 the Rev. Harry Gayley came to Hillcrest. It was he who helped organize the church in the fall of 1952, November.
Charter members are: Lawrence and Vannie Davenport Inez Davenport Kenneth and Virginia Fuller William and Mary Franklin Helen Rex Mrs. Bob Clarke Richard and Margaret Lowe
(Editor’s Note: Handwritten notes on Harry Gayley’s stationery also include among the charter members, Mrs. Kenneth Simcox. The petition to organize the church, signed April 6, 1952, includes the signatures of most of the above persons, plus R. G. Calvert, Mrs. Edna Calvert, Mr. E. R. Clarke, Mrs. Jay Hendrickson, Mrs. Richard Crum, Manvil H. Olson, Beulah W. Olson, Wanda L. Holmes, and Mrs. Walter Croft.)
The first elders were Helen Rex, Richard Lowe, and Mary Ellen Franklin.
Rev. Gayley, with the help of servicemen, put the cross on the quonset and also worked hard painting and remodeling the hut. Bill Franklin, Al Rex and Ken Fuller also helped and began to take a greater interest in the church activities. Rev. Gayley was good with the young people and found time to take them skating, picnics, parties, etc. The first party was a Halloween party ‘52 for young folks at the quonset. It was during this time, too, that Al Rex built a pulpit and presented it to the church. Rev. Gayley had been using a cardboard box on top of a small table. The box was covered with a scarf and the Bible lay on this.
During these early times we had for two years a bowling team representing Hillcrest in the YMCA church league at Anchorbowl. For the 1953-1954 season Presbyterian H team won the league championship. Team members were Ken Fuller, Gennie Fuller, Bill Franklin, Dick Crum, and Al Rex. We were given a trophy and were very proud, very lucky too, I might add!
Helen Rex invited the women to her home for a get-acquainted visit and it was from here that the women’s organization had its beginning. We met next time at Beulah Olson’s in Homesite Park and elected Mary Ellen Franklin as our first president. Inez Davenport was vice president, Mrs. Robert Clarke was secretary and I was treasurer. Mrs. Frank Walkup, wife of the pastor at First Church, attended this meeting and was a great help to us. She suggested that we not use the name we had been considering. Helen thinks Rev. Gayley mentioned Hillcrest, and that seemed just right.
In 1953, Anchorage no longer had public kindergartens and in January Mary Ellen started a private one in the quonset. Despite cold weather and frozen water pipes she managed two sessions, morning and afternoon. The children each paid $15 a month but Mary Ellen received very little of this. She used the Calvert system and I believe she really enjoyed teaching these children. Mrs. Wanda Holmes was the next teacher. Wanda Holmes also had two sessions and was very good with the children. I remember one Valentine’s Day when Wanda planned a party for the children. It was very cold and the children arrived complete with mothers and younger brothers and sisters to find that the fuel oil had run out and the quonset icy cold! Poor Wanda was very upset, but Doris Mead (one of the mothers) said we’d just make it into a birthday party for her son Stevie. So we all piled into cars and drove to her house. I dashed home for the coffeepot and cups and we all had a grand time! I wonder how many many times something like this happened. Running out of fuel oil, the stove blowing up and the water pipes freezing in the restroom.
Back to the kindergarten. Wanda taught until 1955 when Mrs. Doug Brewer taught for a month or so and was followed by Lois Aaronson who was Rick’s teacher. Mrs. Aaronson was very pretty and Rick loved her dearly. This 1955-1956 was the last year for the kindergarten. We just didn’t have the facilities for it but I’ve always been glad Rick was able to go.
Helen Rex was our first janitor. Every week for months she and Al would go over on Saturdays and dust and clean and straighten, even when not feeling well. On Sunday morning, she’d dust again.
Mr. and Mrs. Morrison’s baby, Louis, was the first child baptized at Hillcrest.
Ken and Dorothy Ferguson were the first couple married at Hillcrest. They later adopted a part Native child.
Notes of Interest
Hillcrest itself was dissolved in 1971.