Times Past

‘Debaucheries’ in San Luis Obispo’s early days challenged Methodist Church’s ministers

The 1874 Methodist Church on Garden Street between Higuera and Marsh in San Luis Obispo featured a 70-foot tower, making it the tallest structure in town.
The 1874 Methodist Church on Garden Street between Higuera and Marsh in San Luis Obispo featured a 70-foot tower, making it the tallest structure in town.

San Luis Obispo was a wild frontier town when the Methodist Church was founded in 1867. Drinking, smoking and “other debaucheries” were common throughout the city’s core.

When the first permanent church building was selected in 1869, it was at the southern boundary at Marsh and Higuera Streets, “far” from the center of town with its saloons and “places of ill repute.” The location proved a mistake. That intersection remained a flood plain as late as the floods of 1969, 1973 and 1995.

Despite the flooding, The Tribune reported that “a novelty during the Christmas season in 1873 was the Christmas tree at the Methodist Episcopal Church. It attracted many visitors.”

Nevertheless, the lack of permanent attendance shrank church revenues and caused pastors Rev. A. P. Hendon and B. W. Rusk to leave after very brief tenures. By 1873, the congregation decided that the remote location was a mistake. By removing the church from the saloons, they had also placed it too far from the people it was intended to serve.

Businesspeople came to recognize that conditions in town needed a Sunday closing law. The town fathers enacted such an ordinance in early 1873. According to The Tribune, “Saloon keepers seem to be abiding by the Sunday Law. Out of eight drinking establishments in San Luis Obispo, seven were closed last Sunday.”

The success of the Sunday closing law led the Methodist congregation to relocate their church to Garden Street, between Higuera and Marsh.

Laird was given the contract to tear down the church at Marsh and Higuera and use the materials to build a 32-by-48-foot structure on Garden. The new church had a 20-foot high ceiling and a 70-foot high bell tower. In 1875, F. S. Woodcock arrived as pastor. A severe drought set in that year and continued until 1878. Church revenues plummeted and a rival, Methodist Church South, was started by banker J. P. Andrews on Toro Street.

The Rev. Woodcock had only worked with churches that were “free of debt.” He resigned and was briefly replaced by Dr. J. B. Green. Rev. Green was a strong Anglophile and proposed a “game super” as a fundraiser.

Green led a hunting party out into the southern reaches of the Edna Valley in search of pheasant, quail and ducks. Following what is now Price Canyon Road, he entered a “splendid marshland filled with duck and geese” floating on the surface.

His double-barreled eight-gauge gun blazed away, killing many fowl. As he was retrieving the birds, the owner of the land on which he had trespassed, John Michael Price, approached. A sometimes hard drinking convert to Catholicism, Price was a founding father of San Luis Obispo County.

Rev. Green had mistaken “Uncle John Price’s” prize flock of tame ducks for a gaggle of mallards.

Price had led the posse that tracked down and killed the perpetrators of the San Miguel Mission Murders in December 1848. Ten years later, he was a leader of the Committee of Vigilance and not a man to be trifled with under lesser circumstances. Poachers were regularly “strung up” both in England and the American West.

Any profits that the Rev. Green had hoped to derive from the “game supper” were quickly “eaten up” by the compensation paid to Price. Rev. Green quickly departed for a pastorate in a less wild environment.

In 1992, I had the pleasure of working with Marjory Johnson in compiling a history of the Methodist Church for the church and what is now the County History Center.

Johnson wrote: “During the 37 years at the Garden Street location, the church had 22 different pastors. None of them remained more than three years.”

It must have taken a great deal of persuading to attract each successive pastor in a town that, despite growing amenities, was still a part of the far west.

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 slohistory@gmail.com.