THE EARLY HISTORY OF THE
OAKHURST SEVENTH-DAY ADVENTIST
CHURCH AND SCHOOL
In the thirties and forties the population of Oakhurst was small. Highway 41 only had a few places of business - the Post Office with a small grocery store located where the "Purple Cow" is now, a service station, and a saloon across from the cemetery. One community church was located on Chapel Hill and later moved to the cemetery.
During the late thirties Stephen Cornwell envisioned a church school for his three boys. He counseled with the Education Department of the Conference, and was advised of a lady teacher, Miss Williams, with four foster girls who was wiling to come. So anxious was she that she and the girls were willing to live in a tent. However, that fall brought ominous signs of a hard winter. Mack McCoy had a vacant house which he offered to Mr. Cornwell to be used as a home for the Williams family and as a school.
The 1940-41 school year started with the seven students, and Echo Valley School was chosen as the name of the school. 1941-42 saw additional students come. Kolstads came from Southern California and lived with the senior McCoys. Steve built a classroom on his property.
It was not long until more families moved in. The Dickinsons, with their two girls, moved first to Coarsegold, and later to Oakhurst. Barbara and Dana Foote, and Bill and Del Whitaker stayed with the Dickinsons. Mr. and Mrs. Alfred Peugh, a retired minister, with their daughter, Verna, and two grandsons, Maurice and Benny, built a home near Cornwells.
It became obvious that the congregation was growing and so was the school. Soon the school would need another room and another teacher. Stephen Cornwell built another classroom. He also heard of a recent graduate of PUC who was qualified to teach.
Stanley Hiten was invited to come to Oakhurst and preach to the company of believers. After the service all interested parties were to be at a meeting that evening and meet the Hitens. Stanley Hiten accepted the invitation to teach the church school.
The 1942-43 school year started well. On December 26, 1942 the company was organized. Elder Vernon Flory, District Superintendent, was Pastor; Stanley Hiten, Head Elder; and Stephen Cornwell was Associate. The members were: Mr. and Mrs. J.J. Bergman, Mr. and Mrs. Stephen Cornwell, Howard Wayne Cornwell, Mr. and Mrs. Walter Cornwell, J.J. McCoy, Mary McCoy, Mr. and Mrs. A.L. Peugh, B.F. Peugh, Maurice Peugh, Miss Florence Peugh, Verna Peugh, Benny Peugh, F.M Peugh, Elder and Mrs. V.E. Peugh, Edwin Peugh, Miss Inez Williams, Midgie Hysler-Williams, Charles Wilson, Mrs. Nora Belle Wilson, Mrs. Freda Woodside, Mrs. Mary Pope, Elder and Mrs. Stanley Hiten, Mr. and Mrs. Lloyd Dickinson, Barbara Foote, Gordon Foote, and Arlene Van Hooland Williams.
It was felt that the school ought to be closer to Crane Valley Road (Road 426). Dickinsons bought a piece of land where Echo Valley joins Crane Valley Road, the site of the present church property. The summer of 1943 was a busy one. A school building 24'x44', that would double as school and church was built and ready for school. Vernon Steward supervised the building. Dr. Ching gave a $500 gift.
A tent was pitched in Oakhurst on Highway 41 where the present-day Burger King is located. Nightly evangelistic meetings were held under the direction of Elder Lawrence Nelson, then District Superintendent. On September 25, 1943 eleven people were baptized in the Fresno River near where the Fulmer's Design Creation is now, and two were taken on Profession of Faith: Arthur Hamburgh, Lloyce Dickinson, Shirley Williams, Anne Myrtle Williams, Esther Peterson, Shirley Cornwell, Walter Cornwell, Marion Meek, Christio Meek, Betty Steward, Ada Belle Hubbard, Mr. Owens, and Mrs. Meek. The congregation now had a membership of 48, with 27 pupils enrolled in the school.
This facility served the growing congregation until 1964, when it was voted to build a Fellowship Hall. This building was later named Holbrook Hall, in honor of Elder Wilbur Holbrook, a veteran educator of the Seventh-day Adventist Church.
With the emphasis on Christian education, it was determined that a new school plant would take precedence over a new church sanctuary. In 1972, the present school facility was first occupied.
The subsequent years saw further growth and the extension of vision. It was time to build a representative sanctuary.
Construction on the new sanctuary, designed to accommodate 300 worshipers, began in July of 1978. Construction personnel, as the work got underway, included Harvey Young, Chairman; Asa Cree, Finances; Dan Guthrie, Building Superintendent; Ken Davis, Building Consultant and Purchasing; and Earl Armand, Engineer. The combined effort and sacrificial spirit of the congregation enabled the work to proceed without interruption and on November 17, 1979 the Ribbon Cutting Ceremony was held. Elders Cook, Elstrom and Bullock from the Conference Office officiated. Following appropriate remarks, Dan Guthrie presented the keys to Alva McElhany. Stephen Cornwell cut the ribbon. Following this, the worshipers enjoyed their first Sabbath School and Worship Service in the new sanctuary. Facilities included five spacious Sabbath School classrooms, a multipurpose room, and a Community Service Welfare Center with kitchen and laundry facilities.
The $430,000 budget was approved by the Pacific Union Conference. The last $250,000 of the cost was financed through a loan from the revolving fund of the Pacific Union Conference and was covered by pledges from the membership. Through the dedication and sacrifice of the congregation, the loan was paid off in 1983, one year before its due date.
In 1989 the growing congregation felt the need for expansion once more. Under the able leadership of Al Schmidt and his many dedicated co-workers, the J. R. Easter Garden was moved to allow for expansion and increased seating in the sanctuary.
The Lord has abundantly blessed and guided the Oakhurst church through its first fifty years of growth. May His love and guidance continue with us as we move forward in faith.
Following is an edited portion of a letter from Stephen Cornwell to the Hiten family.
"Dear Stanley Hiten, Family and Church Family:
"In pondering what to write, my thoughts went back to the Echo Valley Church School, named after our ranch site. The school was later renamed Oakhurst Church School when moved to its present location. This school was built by the guidance of the Holy Spirit and miracles.
Follow me as we go back one year or so before the school was completed.
We were living at Chowchilla at the time but I never like the lowlands. I longed for the mountain tops. Having worked at the Sugar Pine Sawmill back in 1915, and walked through the meadows to my father's homestead, a distance of thirty miles, I was well acquainted with the area and longed for a home there. Little did I realize that I would spend half of my life, a span of forty-five years, in that vicinity.
"Let's skip down a couple years to when my family and I were living at the Dilzik ranch in Oakhurst. There was just one thing lacking...a church school for our boys. The boys had to walk a distance of four miles to school and another four miles home. Sometimes they were able to catch a ride with the teacher as she lived nearby, but most of the time they walked.
"One day after school the teacher dropped our two boys off before turning down her road. As the boys continued to walk towards home, they noticed a man walking beside them. Stephen felt something was wrong when he looked up the road and saw two more men standing beside a car. In thinking of an excuse to get away from these men, Stephen said, 'I need to tie my shoe laces.' The man walking beside them walked forward a few steps. As Stephen knelt down he whispered to Wayne, 'Run for the bushes!' Like a couple of deer they jumped off the road into the brush. The men at the car shouted, 'Grab them!' The other man replied that he couldn't as there was too much brush. Our boys continued past the house and cut back through the back clearing to the house.
"When it came time for our youngest son to start school, the distance was just too far. Due to this fact and the above experience, it made us even more determined that a church school would be our next project.
"We still didn't own any property as no one would sell less than 160 acres. We prayed about it, asking the Lord for a piece of property, even if it was only one acre with a pine tree. Within two weeks the Lord had answered our prayers and we had the property. It all started one wintry day when the ground was covered with snow. Our neighbor's cows had gotten out and I went to help find them. While helping him, I mentioned tht we were looking for some property to purchase. He said there was a man who bought 160 acres, but was unable to make the payments. The property was located near Oakhurst and had plenty of water and pine trees.
"I immediately wrote and made an offer, but the owner ignored my offer and made me a better one. Later I found out that I would not be able to keep my end of the bargain, so he cut my offer in half. We now had a place where a church school could be built.
"We built a brooder house with a dirt floor and moved in. Then we framed the house and put the roof on; covered the outside walls and for partitions we hung blankets and canvas. My father and my wife's mother were waiting to move in with us.
"Now for the school project. Our family brought up the situation whenever an opportunity arose, but funds were low, due in part to three families being on welfare or state aid. Only Mack McCoy was working and that was at any job he could find.
"One Sabbath as I was trying to work up some interest in a church school, one good brother had all he could take. Standing up he said, 'Steve, I have a story for you.' So...he proceeded to tell a story about an Oklahoma family who spent their time in target practice. They made their own shotgun shells by buying the empty shells and putting in powder, packing in the lead shots and topping them off with a plug and then crimping the shell top together. When they were doing their target practice, the whole family took turns with their homemade shells, but for Grandma they had made a special shell. They gave Grandma the gun saying, 'Hold it tight or it will knock you down.' When Grandma pulled the trigger it knocked her flat on her back. As she was trying to get up, the family told her to just lie still as there were still seven more loads. After this story, I took the hint and didn't bother them anymore, but went ahead with the plans and put my trust in the Lord.
"We wrote the conference telling them of our need for a church school. Elder Vernon Berry, I believe, was the Educational Superintendent. He came right out to look over the situation and to assess our needs, as we didn't have a school house, desks or supplies and had only three boys of school age.
"Elder Berry said we would need as least six students before the conference would permit a school. He thought for a minute, then said, 'I think we can make it. There is a lady teacher in San Diego that is taking care of our girls and she needs a job. Three of those girls are in school.' We then discussed finances; how much we could pay the teacher as the conference would not help out the first year with the expenses. My father said that he could pay $5.00 a month, my mother-in-law could pay $5.00, also. That was all we could spare, but we would supply wood, garden produce, and a place to live.
"Elder Berry wrote to Miss Williams telling her the amount of cash she would receive and that we would help with her other needs. Miss Williams wrote right back saying, 'I am coming.' We started school that year one week late.
"Miss Williams cared for the four girls on her own. Their mother died and their father, who was a sailor, never came to see the girls after they moved away from San Diego.
"A place was needed for the school. At that time brother Mack McCoy went back to live with his parents, so he said, 'Stephen, you can use my house for the school.' Now we had a place for the school. The front room was used for the classroom; the bedroom, dining room, and the kitchen were living quarters for the teacher.
"Elder Berry said Chowchilla had some things we could borrow, so I took my truck over and picked up some desks, a black board and other supplies they were not using.
"By the beginning of the second year our membership had grown so large that the conference formed us into a company. Along with the growth of our 'company', the school had also rapidly expanded to 29 students and the need for two teachers. Elder Hiten was hired and taught the 9th and 10th grades and Miss Williams the lower grades.
"We started a new building for the school on our place. I was able to get the lumber that was needed with the help of my father (who had only one arm as the result of an accident in a sorghum mill, but who could do more with one arm than most people could with two) and Brother Band Croft, with whom I had lived while attending school in Chowchilla. We had the new school up by New Years. We put up a temporary wall which separated the building into two parts with school on one side and living quarters for Miss Williams on the other.
"During the time that it took to finish the school, Miss Williams lived on our property in a tent that leaked. At night the coyotes, mountain lions and other animals prowled around and she was afraid to stay there by herself.
"The Devil was unhappy with us! That winter was a wet one and the grass grew tall and with the following hot, dry summer, it was just the right condition for forest fires.
"Miss Williams and the four girls went to visit a friend for four days and on their return the girls cleaned out the ashes from the wood stove and dumped them into the tall dry grass. About midnight, my wife woke me up and said someone was screaming outside. I partly woke up and said that it was a mountain lion screaming and went back to sleep. My wife awakened me again and when I looked out the window, the sky was aglow. I shouted, 'Fire!' and the boys and I jumped up, dressed and put a drum on the truck and filled it with water and headed for the school. When we arrived at the school, the fire was out. It had burned a fifty-foot circle in one and one-half foot tall dry grass within a foot of the school house.
"The next morning the forest ranger came and asked if we had seen a fire at our location last night. The man on the look-out station had seen the blaze but it went out. The forest ranger said it was a miracle. Miss Williams couldn't talk above a whisper because of the screaming she had done the previous night.
The Dickinsons moved to Oakhurst from Los Banos and bought a piece of property to build on. The conference later asked the Dickinsons to go to South America to help build up a dairy farm for one of our schools there. They accepted the call and turned their property over to the conference for a school. This was what we needed. The property was located on the county road.
"Somehow the surveys got mixed up and when the property was resurveyed, the property we had a deed for was up a creek and nothing but a rock pile. The school, which served both as a school and church, was now half on undeeded ground and half on Indian property. Mr. Forethid, who owned the property made the necessary change and gave the conference the property deed. That left us with still half of the property on Indian ground. I had had some dealings with the Indians before, so my wife and I were delegated to hunt for the relatives of the Indian family to get their written agreement to sell. This entailed quite a search, as they were scattered all over Madera County. The Lord helped us get their consent and the five acres were then purchased. We wanted to purchase ten acres, but the woman living behind the school owned the largest interest in the property and she did not wish to sell the second five acres.
"When the conference got the deed to the property, World War II was in progress and we were not allowed to buy lumber for building anything new. We tore down half of the school building on the ranch and took the lumber out to the new school property and rebuilt part of the school with it. Since we could buy lumber for an addition, this is what we did and we were able to finish the Oakhurst Seventh-day Adventist School.
"Our school grew fast; so did the membership. We were formed into a company the second year; then into a church. We had church and school there until we moved out to the present location."