Let’s Talk Clovis: 1868 Academy Church, Oldest Continuing Church in Fresno County

The Academy Church, pictured here in 1869, has provided worship services for 150 years. CONTRIBUTED BY CLOVIS MUSEUM

This historic 1868 Academy Church is a small wooden one-room sanctuary. The majestic Sierra Nevada is visible from the front door. The church has provided worship services for 150 years. It is the oldest continuing church in Fresno County.

The church is located at the Big Dry Creek area, approximately 10 miles east of Clovis. Early pioneers recognized the area was ideal for ranching and raising their large families. Big Dry Creek originates in the Sierra Nevada above Shaver Lake and eventually disappears into the Valley floor.

The name Big Dry Creek was changed to Academy in 1872 when the pioneers built a school 1,000 feet southwest of the church that provided high school courses. Only six cities: San Francisco, Oakland, Sacramento, Stockton, Alameda and Berkley provided high school courses at that time.

Many early pioneers who settled at Big Dry Creek were from the South. Several were members of the Methodist Episcopal Church South that arrived in America (1766) to establish missions and schools.

The pioneer families believed in God, practiced moral ethics and strong work ethics. They wanted their children to receive a quality education.

In 1846, John G. Simpson left Missouri on horseback and arrived in the Big Dry Creek area. He vowed to return and settle there. He and his wife Susan would donate land for the 1868 Academy Church, the Academy Cemetery and the Academy School.

In 1856, John traveled to Visalia to marry Sarah Margaret Baley. Remarkable Sarah had survived her family’s wagon train journey from Missouri (via now the Interstate 40). She walked most the way while carrying her little sister, Mary. Mary died during the journey. She was buried on the bank of the Pecos.

The Baleys lost three children. Each were buried in different locations. Hertheney was buried in Missouri, Mary on the bank of the Pecos and Nancy Jane at Visalia. Their son, Benjamin Baxter Baley (1857-1867), died at Academy.

Millerton and Centerville were their only burial choices for Benjamin. His parents wanted him to remain near them. The Simpsons selected a lovely area of their ranch where he would be buried. That location became the Academy Cemetery.

John became a prominent stock man. He owned over 7,000 acres of land. He served as the first Fresno County Tax Collector and as Superintendent of Fresno County Schools.

In 1865, John and Sarah donated land for the church. The church was organized that year by Rev. J.M. Turner. Services were held under the majestic oak trees. Circuit rider Rev. Joel Hedgpeth was appointed the permanent pastor. At one point he was admonished for not preaching “fire and brimstone.” He believed preaching love was the true message. Church families would welcome him into their homes during his visits. It is also remembered he had a vision problem (cross-eyed) which caused the congregation to be attentive since they were never quite sure who he was looking at.

Circuit riders were not ordained ministers but were dedicated laymen. They were required to deliver sermons, obey the rules of the church and have a horse for transportation. They would visit their charges twice a month.

By 1868, church members had donated adequate funds to build their church. The families participated in the traditional “roof” raising.

You will recognize the names of the families who joined in this historic event: Simpson, Hedgpeth, Blasingame, Sample, Estill and Wm. Cole. Many of their descendants continue ranching. They remain active in our community.

In 1893, several Academy Church families established the first church in Clovis on the southwest corner of Fifth and Woodworth. Rev. Joel Hedgpeth served as their first pastor from 1893-1897.

We will continue the rich heritage of the historic 1868 Academy Church in our next Clovis Roundup article.

Academy Church 150th Anniversary Celebration

Oct. 21, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.

10667 N. Madsen Ave, Clovis, CA 93619