“There were sixty places where liquor was sold. Not all of these places were saloons … dry goods, grocery and all the other stores of the town carried liquors,” observed Mary Hendon, the wife of Rev. A. P. Hendon, the second minister of San Luis Obispo’s Methodist Church in 1870.
San Luis Obispo was enjoying a spectacular revival following the drought years of 1862-65. However, the booming dairy industry brought in thirsty farm and ranch workers from the countryside. The plethora of drinking establishments was one reason Margaret Price Foreman started the first Methodist Sunday school in the fall of 1867. A teetoler, she did not want to live in a town that had no Protestant church advocating for abstinence.
Her husband, A.W. Foreman, was one of the surveyors sent to do the first official United States survey of San Luis Obispo County.
The Sunday school met in the decrepit International or French Hotel across the plaza from the Mission. This was the beginning of the first Protestant church in San Luis Obispo County.
Mrs. Foreman gave a supper to raise money for hymn books. The event was so successful that her husband suggested some money be put aside for a church fund. He donated $500 to that purpose. Another $500 was pledged by Judge William Beebe.
Rev. A. B. Spooner, an ordained Methodist minister, was appointed “preacher in charge at San Luis Obispo” by the California Conference of the Methodist Episcopal Church on Sept. 22, 1867. By the end of the first year, there were 60 full members and 35 “probationers” on the church rolls.
Mrs. Foresman and Judge Beebe faced a new problem. Where would they locate a church building in a town normally filled with drunken carousing? A site was selected at the intersection of Marsh and Higuera streets, quite a distance from the center of town with its ubiquitous saloons.
Shortly before the church was finished, Rev. Spooner resigned to become a Methodist circuit rider for the district, which included San Simeon on the north and San Luis Obispo on the south.
Rev. Spooner was replaced by Rev. A. P. Hendon, who had recently organized a Methodist church in Compton. Rev. Hendon took charge of the building of the new church. It resembled an Orthodox Jewish synagogue or early New England church with one large room divided into two sections with a center aisle. Women were seated on one side and men on the other side.
The church cost $1,400. But $200 was still owed when the church was first opened.
The church had no doors nor windows in place, and the seats were rough wooden benches when the first services were held Jan. 2, 1870. Rev. Hendon assured The Tribune, “We have ordered windows and doors, which will not cost [more than] $50, and at our first service we hope to raise the amount by collection.”
Finances continued to be a problem. This led to the resignation of Rev. Hendon in 1871. Rev. B. W. Rusk replaced him. Rev. Rusk conducted services every fourth Sunday in San Luis Obispo.
The other three Sundays found him preaching in Santa Maria, Cambria and Cayucos.
The location of the church at the far southern outskirt of the town was part of the problem. Marsh Street lived up to its name, making the church unreachable during rain-swept winters.
The coming of the Civil War had fractured the Methodist, Presbyterian and Episcopal churches. There had been a Methodist church in Los Angeles in the late 1840s, but it went out of existence. From 1858 to 1866 there was no activity by the Methodist Church in Southern California.
The San Luis Obispo startup in 1867 had demonstrated the need for new churches, but even in a small town, location was everything.
Dan Krieger is a professor emeritus of history at Cal Poly and past president of the California Mission Studies Association, now part of the California Missions Foundation. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.