Woodland Park Presbyterian Anchorage
What follows is an unsigned history written in honor of the Tenth Anniversary of Woodland Park Presbyterian Church, April 26, 1959. The church is located at 3300 Wyoming Drive, Anchorage, and has since been purchased by the Korean Presbyterian congregation.
It was in the fall of 1946 that Suggitt and Wieman began the development of a large area outside of Anchorage that was known as the Woodland Park Subdivision. These young men had been able to purchase tracts of land that began to be subdivided into probably the first organized type of development in the area.
Spenard Road at that time was a dirt road leading out from Anchorage to the area known as Spenard, on to Lake Spenard, and a little beyond -- a barely passable mass of mud during breakup time.
A very few businesses and homes were scattered from the top of Romig Hill, out to Deadman’s Curve. Parker’s Department Store was a quonset hut near the corner. The Ray Plummer home was located near what is now the corner of Spenard Road and Northern Lights Boulevard. Far on out, with little but Sweum’s Grocery in between, Charles and Lillian White operated the Ptarmigan Trailer Park. They were among the very few who boasted a telephone.
The Woodland Park area by 1948 was sparsely settled. The Ed Bantz family arrived in the spring, lived in their trailer house, and began building a home on Wyoming and Colorado Streets. The George Gustafsons had worked on their place for almost a year, and boasted spackled walls and electricity from the Suggitt and Wieman light plant, which provided electricity for the Woodland Park Development.
Into this settlement, at this time, came two far-seeing men who anticipated the growth which was to come, and with it the need for a church. These men were the Rev. Rolland Armstrong (Army), the pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Anchorage, and the Rev. Fred Koschmann, of the Faith Presbyterian Church. In February of 1948, these two men went with Mr. Suggitt to look over the subdivision, and choose a piece of property they felt would be a good site for a church.
Army reports: “Some days after this initial contact, Mr. Suggitt said that he felt that a site catty-cornered to the one that we had picked would be much better and easier to build on. So it is that at the originally chosen site, the present manse is built. The second choice, the one suggested by Mr. Suggitt, is where the church is now located. Little did we realize at that time that both pieces of property would be needed and used by the church.
One of two homes in the area was of the log style of construction, up to about four and one-half feet; the rest of it was vertical siding. We tried to be in keeping with the rest of the structures in the area, and decided that this type of construction would be followed. Logs were purchased, and the building was to be put up in such a way that meetings could be held in the log cabin. Our thinking at this time was that later the cabin could be converted into a manse.”
To continue with Army’s part of the story: “In order to make all this possible, Fred and I had to go to the bank and get a loan of $2,500. In order to pay this off, Leona Koschmann was going to go to work at Auke Bay School, at Old Fort Richardson, and Katherine Armstrong would be baby-sitter for the Koschmann youngsters. The plan would be that from the wages that Leona would make, she would pay Katherine wages for baby-sitting, and together they would then help us to pay off the mortgage at the bank.
The next problem was to get our material together, and enlist the help of young people from the church to come into the project. GIs from the base came in to see if they could help; two young men that we remember were Claude and Bob Lantz. Claude had planned to go on a hunting trip, and Bob to take ‘furlough’ work on the railroad for extra money. Both gave up their plans to help with the work.
Both of these fellows worked long, late hours in digging the well, skinning the logs, and getting the ground prepared. Many an evening the young people from the church and volunteers from the base would work by the lights from our cars, as we would get to the project after dark. One will notice the south wall of the old log building having a bow in it, because this was put up at night, when it was very difficult to check.”
While this work was in progress, Dr. Earl Jackman, Secretary of the Work in Alaska, was making preparations for a pastor to come into the areas. In Los Angeles, California, Dr. Jackman met with and interviewed the man who was to become the first pastor of the Woodland Park Presbyterian Church. A graduate of Princeton Seminary in 1946, the Rev. Hackett Johnson was working under the Board of National Missions in Jewish evangelism when he received his appointment to start work in Spenard.
In late November he and Doris, his bride of the past summer, set out for Alaska. To quote Hackett, “The new Nash heavily packed with warm, recommended clothing, some of which we never used, and many wedding gifts for the setting up of housekeeping, we left the day after Thanks-giving.” Extreme cold weather and car trouble caused them to return to Seattle from southern Canada, and make the trip by boat.
The Johnsons arrived in Anchorage on the afternoon of December 24, and were made welcome in the Armstrong home. Hackett says, “As it was beginning to get dark that day, we drove by the log building all covered with snow, which was to be the Woodland Park Presbyterian Church. Little did we know then, that this half-completed shell of a building would become so important in the lives of so many of us.”
A small apartment off Spenard Road was rented for the Johnsons, and they were initiated into all the modern inconveniences of the area at that time. Doris found the first time she dropped water on the floor that it froze to the linoleum. Soon the young couple made the adjustment and moved into the newly built apartment unit. This and the usual amount of inconveniences of going outside to washrooms and shower room. They took it in wonderful style:
“In the meantime,” to further quote Army, “the Chapel had been turned over to the Johnsons when they arrived with the announcement, ‘Here is the key’ finish the job!’ All of the interior had to be completed, insulation, celotexing, finishing of the floor, the installation of the pumps for the water and the installation of toilets. This was all done in good spirit, as these young people felt this was a challenge, and that there was a great opportunity ahead of them.”
During the week after Christmas, the floor furnace was moved into the Chapel, and set up on blocks. The ground was frozen, so it could not be installed in the floor at this time.
Sunday, January 2, 1949, the first religious service was held. The temperature was 12 degrees. As yet there was no insulation at all in the Chapel, and the walls were finished with heavy paper. It was probably the coldest service ever attended by the 15 who came for Sunday school, and the eleven who stayed for church service. These people included the minister and his wife, the two service men who had helped build the Chapel, and also attending were Rosemary Werner, Susan Gustafson, Jack, Janet, and Dennis Griffith. The minister preached the sermon in his overcoat and cut the sermon short. Those who went dressed for church, that first Sunday returned the second Sunday with slacks and warm boots.
During the weeks that followed, other people in the neighborhood became interested in the formation of a church in Spenard, and began to attend the services and activities.
Roads were very poor, at this time and few of the people had cars. The Reverend Johnson, and some of the members who had cars, operated a pickup service for quite some time to bring those who had no other way of attending.
There were very few phones outside of Anchorage, as a result of the lack of communication and transportation; the time before and after church was usually quite busy. Members came with notations of people they wanted to see and business to be transacted, hustling from one to another in an effort to get it all done.
Mrs. Bessie McCoy, Doris Johnson’s mother, visited here from Los Angeles several times. In her later visits, she always said she liked the first visit the most. Then, she said, people had to drop in with messages, or children were sent to the manse with notes. She felt this was much more pleasant, and intimate than the jangle of the telephone.
The first choir (?) consisted of Mary Chiveral, Ethel Landmesser, and Hackett Johnson. Doris was pianist during the early period. A more formal choir was organized a short while later with Mrs. Betty Dayton as the director.
A women’s Association was formed during these first few months. Mary Chiveral came from her present location through the snow pulling Baby Carol on a sled. (Carol was the first baby christened in the church). The first president of the Women’s Association was Lillian White, with Bernice Bantz as secretary-treasurer. The group was an active one from the beginning. Two bake sales were held during the first summer in the quonset hut which was later incorporated into Parker’s Store. The greatest problem of those working with the bake sale was that of keeping the dust of Spenard Road from getting all over the food. A bazaar was held in November. This first year set a pattern of contributing to the growth of the church which was to continue through the years.
In March of 1949, a group of those who had been attending petitioned the Presbytery of the Yukon to organize a Presbyterian Church in Spenard. This they voted to do.
On the evening of April 26, 1949, the Presbytery of the Yukon met in the Woodland Presbyterian Chapel for the purpose of organizing a church. The Rev. Victor Alfsen, then pastor of the Palmer Church, was moderator. The Rev. Hackett Johnson was installed and the charge to the pastor was given by the Rev. Fred Koschmann, pastor of the Faith Presbyterian Church. Also present was the Rev. Eugene Bromley of the Alaska Presbytery.
Eighteen were received into membership at this time. They were:
Bernice Bantz Edward C. Bantz Frank M. Buell Mary Chiveral Robert J. (Jim) Claire Virginia O. Claire Denny Griffith George Gustafson Doris Johnson Nancy Parker Kenneth Parker Mary P. Plummer Raymond E. Plummer Eve Reese Rosemary Werner Jack R. Werner Lillian Ella White Mrs. George E.M. (Linda) Gustafson (Editor’s note: The official petition to organize the Woodland Park Church also included the signatures of Mrs. Kathryn Leddy (or Teddy?), May Mull, Walter E. Chiveral, and Sue Buell. It did not include the signatures of Denny Griffith or Eve Reese. This does not mean they were not charter members, only that they didn’t sign the petition.)
In the spring and summer of 1949, members and friends came whenever possible to help with the necessary work for completion of the Chapel. During the summer, the partition was put in to provide for a nursery during church, and also for a vision of Sunday school groups. Inside finishing of the Chapel progressed.
To house the growing Sunday school, a quonset hut was obtained, and fixed up for use as a Sunday school and activity room. This quonset served the church well until it was dispensed with several years later.
By this time it as felt that a manse should be provided. A house was chosen on Lois Drive, which had an inexhaustible water supply, a rarity in the Spenard area. After much work by the Johnsons, Armstrongs, Koschmanns, and the Westminster Fellowship group of First Church, along with members, it was painted and made presentable when the Johnsons moved in.
A Cub Scout Pack sponsored by the church, and the First Brownie Scout Troop in Spenard met in the Chapel.
Soon it was obvious that the present housing was inadequate. By this time the Sunday School had one hundred pupils, and a staff of seven teachers. In just a little over a year after the first services in the Chapel -- April 1950 -- plans for a new building were in the making. A contract with the architect, Ed Crittenden, was signed in October of 1950.
A building fund program was instituted, and a bond issue voted upon and passed. During this period of building, much help – finan-cial, moral, and spiritual -- came from the Board of National Missions through a man all came to feel was a true friend, Dr. Jackman.
In the fall of 1950, actual construction began with the clearing of the site, and moving of the quonset hut. Footings were put in that fall. In February of 1951, a contract was let for the framework and outer structure of the building. This was completed in April, with members and friends of the church continuing the work of finishing the interior. In November of 1952, the new building was put into use. The interior was incomplete, but comfortable.
The Men’s Club of the Woodland Church was organized in January of 1953. The first president was Edward Bantz. Previous to this organization the men had been holding meetings as more of a community group. The purpose of the Presbyterian Men’s club is to meet the spiritual needs of the men and further the work of the Church.
On April 8, 1953, the Woodland Park Presbyterian Church, as it now stands, was dedicated at ceremonies conducted by Dr. Herman Morse, Moderator of General Assembly; Dr. J. Earl Jackman, Secretary for the Board of Missions; and Dr. R.R. Armstrong, field representative in Alaska.
To complete the history of structural building of the Church, the trustees in February of 1954 reported on research into the possibility of a new Sunday school addition. Members moved to proceed with this. Work was begun immediately wit the building in use in the spring of 1955.
In October of 1954, the Rev. Johnson resigned to return with his family to California. The almost six years since the Johnson’s arrived had brought many changes, in the community, the church, our homes, and the lives of those who had come to love the Woodland Park Presbyterian Church.
The man who came to fill the pulpit in December of 1954, was not a newcomer to Alaska. Ralph Weeks came to Alaska in 1938 as boys’ advisor and coach at Sheldon Jackson. Here he met and married his wife, Louise, who also was teaching there. From Sheldon Jackson the Weeks spent four years teaching in the Alaska Native Service School at Noorvik. They spent a short while in Seward, and then went to Mt. Edgecumbe, where Ralph taught and helped organize the boys’ program. Within a few months he was appointed by the Home Missions Council as the first chaplain for government schools in Alaska.
Ralph felt called to get further education to become a fully ordained Presbyterian minister, to be able to return to Alaska and offer greater service to the Church. In 1950, therefore, the Weeks went Outside to San Anselmo, California, where Ralph attended San Francisco Theological Seminary.
In 1953, when his studies were completed, the Rev. Ralph Weeks and his family returned to the Fairbanks, Big Delta area where they worked under the Board of National Missions with offbase service personnel. He also conducted regular services in the Chapel at Big Delta, which now is a Mission church. It was from this work that Ralph, Louise, and their three daughters, Caroline, Isabella, and Joan came to the Woodland Park Presbyterian Church.
In 1956, the lot across from the church which was mentioned previously was purchased. A prefabricated house was selected and erected by means of work parties and help from members, and the Weeks family moved into this house in the fall.
The need for a larger and more hospitable manse for the pastor and his family was indicative of the work of the Church, also. The physical plant of the Church was ade-quate for the present.
The last four years have brought a continued growth in membership, in Youth Fellowship Groups, and in spiritual life, with the entire fellowship becoming aware of what Christ means to them in their whole life.
The services of the church are available to all who would desire to come and join in fellowship and worship.
In 1959 and 1960, it was noted that Woodland Park had grown far too big for its facility and that the same phenomena was true at Faith. Both churches were also drawing families from the same area. A merger was in order.
The new Trinity Presbyterian Church was formed from members of the two congregations on March 27, 1960, with the Rev. Weeks as pastor.
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