Let’s Talk Clovis: 1868 Academy Church, Oldest (152 years) Continuing Church in Fresno County

The 1868 Academy Church is the oldest continuing church in Fresno County. (Courtesy of Clovis Museum)

We continue the history of the 1868 Academy Church pioneers who spiritually and financially supported their Church and community. The Academy (Big Dry Creek) settlement is the origin of Clovis. “Our Clovis Way of Life” is a continuation of their commitment to moral ethics and education.

In 1872, they built the Academy school (on Church grounds) that was the first secondary school in Fresno County.  Clovis Unified School District continues to provide excellent education.

We are sharing information from the 1892 Methodist Episcopal Church, South Quarterly Conference reports. Those in attendance on November 1, 1892: Rev. A.L. Hunsaker was PC (presiding preacher), B.S. Birkhead, Secretary, J.W. Potter (his daughter Elizabeth would marry Rev. C. Todd Clark who served on the Fresno County Board of Supervisors) and Wm. T. Cole (sheep baron and father of ten girls).

Wm. T. Cole reported there were no complaints, exhorts (to urge) or any application for license. The preacher was paid $650 and presiding elder $150. $59.25 supported their foreign Missions and $37.50 for local Missions.

The conference was held at the 1883 Garfield school (Minnewawa and Shepherd Avenues). A committee was appointed to improve the church property and parsonage: Wm. Cole, J.M. Heiskell, W. Qualls, J.M. Potter and Thomas Lyall.

In addition to their Academy Church, they provided two other churches and Sunday school locations.  One at the 1869 Mississippi School house. It was located on land that was donated by J.M. Heiskell (quarter mile north of Little Dry Creek, between Behymer and Perrin). In 1877, the original schoolhouse was replaced. J.M. Heiskell would eventually move it to Clovis (304 Harvard Ave.). It remains a home.

Tollhouse was the second location. Those services would eventually be relocated to Big Sandy. We believe it served as a mission for the Big Sandy Rancheria of North Mono Tribe.

Mrs. Ida Simpson was united by letter. Mr. George Howard was received by professions of faith a few days prior to his death. One infant was baptized.

The total value of the Church was $2,548: church $1,200, parsonage $300, land $238 and improvements $810.

Rev. Neal would urge his congregation to plant trees on the Academy Camp (seven acres) ground to make it “beautiful and romantic”. His trustees: W.H. Qualls, J.M. Heiskell, J.W. Potter and George Baley.

The siblings of the Academy pioneers continued their spiritual and financial support. In 1989, Al Schiavon (his son Dave and family remain actively involved) and Roberta Simpson Coons (great granddaughter of John and Sarah Simpson) organized a campaign to fund church and ground improvements. The major project was to replace the “old outhouse” with modern rest rooms, add a pavilion and kitchen. Roberta’s two daughters (Jeanne and Joanne) and Joanne’s son Gary Hill remain active members of the Academy Circle and the Academy Community Foundation.

The Academy Community Foundation was formed (public charity, 501©(3)) in 2012. It is a Religious Corporation that will operate the church, administer, and manage the affairs, property, and temporalities of the church. In 2017, three members of the Simpson family provided funds ($50,000) to purchase the church from the Fresno District Missionary and Church Extension Society of the United Methodist Church.

In 2016, a licensed general contractor inspected the church and stated that the 150 old church “appears to be sound”.  He estimated that restoration would require $120,000. He cautioned it could easily exceed $200,000 if substantial upgrades/compliances were imposed.

The Academy Community Foundation has initiated a fund drive to secure $200,000 ($168,000 funds are available). The success of that drive will insure the continuation of our historic Academy Church. It reminds us of how important historic buildings and traditions are and how they are a vital part of our rich heritage.

Peg Bos is the president of the Clovis Museum on 4th and Pollasky avenues in Old Town Clovis. She not only manages the museum but she also writes her Let's Talk Clovis column in our publication which features and highlight the amazing history of our city and culture. One fun fact about Peg Bos, she was the first female mayor of Clovis from 1984-86.