Respecting History

Anniversary of the Little Church on the Hill and Oakhill Cemetery June 20

Community CorrespondentJune 10, 2014 

An old-fashioned ice cream social, a rededication of the Little Church on the Hill, live music, and a tour of Oakhill Cemetery highlights are on the agenda from 4-7 p.m. Friday, June 20, for the celebration of the 120th anniversary of the Little Church on the Hill and the 140th anniversary of Oakhill Cemetery where the Little Church stands atop a grassy knoll. The public is invited.

Just in time for the celebration, thanks to community donations, restoration of the west wall of the Little Church was completed in May. The work was done by Doug Reynolds Construction of Mariposa. Custom frames for the stained glass on that wall were made by RPM Planing, Mike Bushell, of Fresno, according to Little Church Foundation chairman Jackie Mallouf.

Historically, ice cream socials date back to the 18th century and were often organized by churches so it seems appropriate that an ice cream social is the celebration model for the rededication of the Little Church.

The iconic Little Church first stood atop Chapel Hill at the corner of Road 425B and Crane Valley Road (426), in what was then known as Fresno Flats and was the first and only house of worship for many years. It was consecrated by the Episcopal Bishop of California as Christ Church on June 20, 1894. It was moved to its present location in Oakhill Cemetery on March 29, 1957.

During the years, the church has been under the jurisdiction of the Episcopalians, as well as the Presbyterians. It was while it was under the jurisdiction of the Presbyterians that Adele (Bissett) Bartholomew attended the Little Church. She was christened in the church on June 14, 1942, at the age of six months.

"I attended church and Sunday school from 1942 until the church closed in 1954," Bartholomew said. "Vacation Bible School was held at the church in the early years and my maternal grandmother, Alice Wilson, was the teacher."

Bartholomew has a King James version of the Bible presented to her, Easter Sunday, 1946, when she was four years old. It was given to her by the Oakhurst Sunday School (Little Church) for reciting the 23rd Psalm, The Lord's Prayer, and the books of the New Testament.

"I was always fascinated by the march of colors progressing over the people as the sun shone through the colored parts of the stained glass windows," Bartholomew said. "I also thought the sanctuary was huge. My brother (Roy Bissett) and I always had to sit in the first pew by the piano since mom (Elizabeth Bissett) or my grandmother (Alice Wilson) played the piano and mom was also a soloist."

"We walked down the old Rocky Cut Road (used prior to Highway 41) to church when a vehicle wasn't available, but usually someone would drive us back home (Highway 41 and Road 222)," Bartholomew said. "Grandmother Emma Bissett operated the Yosemite Forks store (most recently known as Mountain House) and wasn't always able to go to church or loan us her car."

Bartholomew remembers the one-way trip to church was about four miles.

Bartholomew's parents, Alice Elizabeth Wilson and Lester Bissett, were the first couple to be married in the church on Aug. 8, 1937, according to Elena Berdel, an early church member (1903) when the church operated under the auspices of the Episcopalians.

It was Bartholomew's great grandfather, Moses Forsyth, who is credited with laying the green shingles over the original sugar pine siding of the church. The shingles protected the sugar pine from complete deterioration.

"I feel a connection to the church through my family — both my dad's family and my mother's family," Bartholomew said. "I want to see it maintained so future generations can see and enjoy it."

She has been actively involved in the preservation of the Little Church as a member of the Little Church Foundation formed in 1994. The foundation is a volunteer advisory group created to guide the use and preservation of the church and Bartholomew served as chairman for three years.

Bartholomew's brother (Roy Bissett) attended the Manzanita School near Cedar Springs and had to walk the two miles from the family ranch or catch a ride.

"The next year I started school — the Manzanita School had combined with Oakhurst and they had a bus so we rode the big yellow bus," Bartholomew remembered.

But the end of elementary school was not the end of her affiliation with Oakhurst Elementary. Bartholomew taught first, second, and third grades with 21 years of her 26-year teaching career at Oakhurst Elementary.

The list of other families who have strong ties to the Little Church include: Arthur and Betty Smith, David H. and Charley Meyers, Wimer, Bambrough, Fhy, Merrill, Bosworth, Dyer, Berdel, Mecchi, and Nelson. There were many other early area families involved with the Little Church and many of those early family members are buried in Oakhill Cemetery in graves surrounding the Little Church.

Rededication

The Little Church will be rededicated at 5:30 p.m. by Father Gordon Kamai of Christ Church Anglican and Rev. David Sebastian of the Oakhurst Lutheran Church. Both are members of the Little Church Foundation board.

Cemetery tour

Robert Ellis, Oakhill Cemetery foreman, will guide the cemetery tour at 4 p.m. Ellis was interested in history even as a young boy. His family's area history dates back to 1849.

"I don't know why I listened, but even as a young boy, I always found myself sitting around and listening to the stories of the old-timers," Ellis said.

His knowledge of the area and its pioneering families has continued to grow in his 14 years working for the cemetery district.

The first burial in the cemetery was that of seven-month-old Frankie Nichols, son of J. Robert Nichols and Elizabeth Newton (Hickman) Nichols. The infant was buried on the hill behind the Nichols' barn that stood where Jamba Juice and Starbucks now are located. Lore has it that Frankie's mother could look out the kitchen window of the family home located where Rite Aid now stands and see the place where her infant son was buried. This grave, in the oldest part of the cemetery, will be included in the tour, according to Ellis. As a result of this first burial, the Nichols family donated the land for the present day Oakhill Cemetery.

They also donated land for the first school and a hilltop site for the initial Christ Church location on what is still known as Chapel Hill off Road 425B.

Other members of the Nichols family are also buried near Frankie's grave. Skeane S. Skeenes, a soldier in the Mariposa Battalion, is buried in the cemetery.

"My great, great grandfather was riding with him when he was shot," Ellis said. This grave site, too, will be included on the tour, as well as the mass grave where the remains of about 40 people who died at the former Ahwahnee Sanitarium were moved in 1970 from the sanitarium grounds on Hwy 49.

A stack of area history books on Ellis' desk speaks to the fact that he has been researching the history of the people buried in the cemetery to be able to share some of that history with those who accompany him on the tour.

Music

Tim Johnson who describes himself as an "eclectic violinist and fiddler" will provide live music for the event at 4 p.m. He will play a selection of western gospel songs for the anniversary event.

The Yosemite Jazz Band, familiar to many jazz enthusiasts in the area, will also perform at the anniversary celebration at 5:45 p.m.

Coloring contest

Winners of the "Michael for Mayor Coloring Contest," will be announced at 6:15 p.m. Michael Costa is the Little Church's honorary mayor candidate. The contest closes on June 15 and was open to pre-K through 12th graders who could color a picture of the Little Church and add any scenery to it that they wanted.


Original Little Church Foundation board members:

According to a Jan. 12, 1995 Sierra Star article, the original foundation board members were: Adele Bissett Bartholomew, Oakhurst, an Oakhurst Elementary school teacher; Norman Baxter, Coarsegold, retired former president of Fresno State University; Greg Mayrer, Ahwahnee, immediate past noble grand humbug of Chapter 41-49 E Clampus Vitus; Kathy Schneider Musacchio, Oakhurst, owner of Kat's Photography; Pastor David Sebastian, Oakhurst, of the Oakhurst Lutheran Church; Rowena Wright, Oakhurst, retired rancher and member of an early-day family; Pastor Gillett Doggett, Oakhurst, of the Calvary Chapel representing the Mountain Ministerial Association; Ruth Hunt, Oakhurst, realtor and president of Sierra Historic Sites Association; and Jackie Mallouf, Oakhurst, past co-owner of Oakhurst Pharmacy and a Madera Cemetery District trustee.

Details: Jackie Mallouf, (559) 683-6832, mallouf@sti.net.

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