Little Log Church and Museum History

This history was written in 1994 by Ruth F. Harrison.

As might be expected of a building its age, Yachats’ Little Log Church by the Sea has witnessed many small and special moments in the loves of people who come, however briefly, under its roof. As a church, it has sheltered Sunday morning services and song, solitary music, moments of meditation, and the dear and solemn rites that commemorate turning points in a life: the love of a couple, the christening of someone very new in the world, the death of a sister, a father, a daughter, a friend. And it has had some fine museum moments, too, as family members have brought items curious, beloved, or useful in past years, to be preserved here for future generations. That most of its moments have been, if not merry, yet harmonious and peaceful, can be felt today in the Little Log Church’s quiet ambience, in the light of its old windows.

But how did the church get its start? And how did the building survive years and storm and rot and damp? And finally, how did it become a museum? To answer these questions, we need to go back a little in time…

Beginning: The Church

During the 1920s, travel in Oregon west of the Coast Range was still mostly a matter of walking or riding horseback.

Coastal bridges and highways had not yet been built. The Yachats area had no regular minister nor church, but the Oregon Conference of the Evangelical Church sent preachers to the area whenever possible.

From 1922 forward, by his own account, Rolla J. Phelps was one such minister, taking a monthly trip from Summit, Oregon, to Bay View Mission, which served both Waldport and Yachats. Mr. Phelps says, “I found them earnest, lovable people needing more shepherding than I could give them from such a distance (unpublished notes [retrospective, n.d.], p. 1).

His superiors honored his request for more time, and in May of 1927 Rev. Phelps was assigned to Bay View Mission. He and his wife Stella, both in their late fifties, said goodbye to their grown children and moved from their home in Summit to the coast. The minister’s wife was Stella Milledge Phelps, a beloved, courageous person in the accounts of all who remember her, who had lost a leg in childhood, possibly to tuberculosis of the bone, and had a wooden leg. A niece, Wanda Milledge Bennett, recalls being “fascinated that her left shoe always looked new” (letter to Verlin Post, 4/10/94).

The couple journeyed to their new pastorate in a horse-drawn wagon. The few personal possessions they brought along included a small pump organ which Stella Phelps played for church functions despite her handicap.

In Rolla Phelps’ words, God “opened the way, providing … a place for us to live and carving for our needs but we soon found that man had closed the door into Waldport … [But] in just two weeks I was invited to preach in the old school house on upper Yachats.” There he performed regular services for a year or more, with occasion visits to Yachats, but no regular services in the town itslf.

Thus, despite several sources indicating a church construction date of 1927, it appears the Little Log Church was not built until two years or more had passed, giving us a building date of late 1929 or early 1930. It is not likely that construction began before the lot was purchased; the Equitable Trust Company contract for the sale of Lot 12 (where the church now stands) to the “Board of Trustees, Oregon Conference of Evangelical Church of Oregon” was “filed and recorded September 18, 1929.” Here, just as Rolla Phelps wrote it, is his own account of events, providing dates that concur with the contract date for purchase of the lot:

“In passing through Yachats-By-The-Sea, I was impressed by its need and made inquiry concerning the work there, on being told the Baptist Church intended comming in I passed it by untill in January of 1929 finding the Baptists had given up comming, we organized a Sunday School in what was then known as the Yachats Inn, holding our services there till Spring then moving to the School house [up on the hill, off what is now King Street] and later to the hall” (p. 1). With this start, his work in Yachats was launched in 1929, and after a period of financial struggle, the minister paid the sum of “$200 cash” (p. 2) for the lot where the church now stands. “When the lot was finally purchased,” Mr. Phelps records, “I began to look for suitable timber finding it up the Yachats…” (p. 1).

All accounts agree that men went up the Yachats River for the logs.

The timber may have been cut about four miles east of town, on what later became the Dawson property, or perhaps on the Carson property; stories differ. In The Land That Kept Its Promise, Marjorie H. Hays tells us that the “logs were donated by one who one who made no claims to religion” and that “others cut and hauled shakes.” Hays adds, “Sir Robert Perks of England, who at that time owned most of Yachats, gave a parcel of land for this worthy cause” (p. 94). And in Rolla Phelps’ account the log donor was “a man who I was told by the neighbors had no use for any thing connected with a church… [but] I… was received kindly and told to take all I wanted, later when the logs were cut ready to be hauled to the mill I asked him to scale them so I could pay for them, I consider his answer worth recording, here it is as I remember:

‘I figure that God Almighty grew them trees and who am I to charge anyone for some of them to build Him a house.'”

Some informants say that Reverend Rolla Phelps led the carpenters and other volunteers; others name his brother, Wise Phelps, as chief builder. Handwritten notes in a “Yachats History” folder remark that “the preacher, the Reverend Phelps, did most of the work. Emil [Howell], a lad of fifteen, watched him notch and fit logs.” And then, as now, townspeople donated time, labor, tools, materials, skills, energy, and good will.

The building was reverently designed in the shape of the Christian cross. Some accounts indicate that pews and windows came from a church in Philomath, conveyed via railway, river, and wagon-and-team. One way and another, the sturdy building grew, and the Little Log Church by the Sea came into existence.

Dr. Chester P. Gates, presiding elder, recorded the event, writing that “the Church at Yachats was completed and dedicated August 24, 1930. It is unique and substantial, constructed of logs and erected under the direction of Brother Phelps…”

Stella Phelps’ niece Wanda recalls her aunt and uncle, and the period, vividly: “I can remember the trip from Waldport to Yachats each summer. We traveled via the beach at low tide… There was no road to Yachats, and we would have to wait for the tide to go out and take the old Hupmobile touring car, loaded with canned goods and staples, to Yachats. The pastor and his wife, who were probably the most contented and happy servants of the Lord who ever were, lived in a small cabin behind the church…

“They existed on the generosity of their parishioners, who furnished eggs, chickens and vegetables rather than money. My father took everything the car would hold to help their existence” (letter to Verlin Post, 4/10/94). The minister’s salary for 1927-28 was $712; it was to drop considerably in the next years when the Great Depression hit.

The cabin to which Wanda Bennett refers was the church’s small manse, added on the south side soon after the church itself was completed. Among the museum exhibits are a photograph, a drawing, and a burnt-wood sketch showing a glimpse of the manse behind the church proper. Wanda Bennett, a Dr. Wilfred Fisher, child of seven as these early family visits to her aunt 2nd minister, around and uncle began, remembers it as having a dirt floor, the time of his arrival and recalls that her bed on such trips was the car’s back seat. And Dr. Wilfred Fisher, Rolla Phelps’ successor, who served the Yachats congregation during 1935-36, describes the interior for us: “As I remember it the only inside walls were those closing off the bathroom in the southwest corner. The remainder of the house was a single room” (letter, 4/11/94).

Aside from photographs and memories, no trace remains of the manse now, in 1994. But several people remember details of the church in its early days. Wanda Bennett recalls that she played the organ as a young girl, and that “Standing in the front pew under the eyes of Uncle Rolla I had to be sure to know the words to the hymns without looking.”

Dr. Wilfred Fisher recalls that, during the mid-30s, what is now Third Street was just a little rutted dirt lane.

“In a church service,” Dr. Fisher says, “I mentioned our need of a walk from the street to the church so people would not have to wade in mud or water during bad weather. Jack [Ingram] said he would build it. He did… and then to my surprise sent me a bill for his labor. We paid it without protest. It was not long after that… until Jack became a regular member… and began doing things without pay, including helping put up the bell.” The church was then the westernmost building on the road, and Yachats Ladies’ Club was the only building near the Log Church and manse. For the most part, houses and town were set well away from the ocean front to be sheltered from winds and salt spray.

An absorbing part of church work included his new outreach program up-river: “While at Yachats,” Dr. Fisher notes, “I started church services in a schoolhouse about seven miles up the river…. The road to Upper Yachats was rough. Several times that year I broke springs on my car, driving over that road. Finally a blacksmith in the church made some specially strong springs for me.” But the jolting journeys were worthwhile, for the services held were well attended, numbering “in the sixties and seventies, when there were only one hundred people living within six miles” of the old schoolhouse.

During his year of service, Dr. Fisher recalls, the bell now in the Log Church belfry “was donated by the First Evangelical Church of Portland, Oregon, when the city of Portland passed an ordinance against the ringing of church bells. The bell was shipped directly to Yachats from Portland.” Dr. Fisher and friends, including Jack Ingram, designed and built the belfry and installed the bell.

The manse served for many years as a parsonage, and later was divided to make a three-room church school. When in the summer of 1976 the manse had at last deteriorated beyond use, it was tom down and a new addition was built by Floyd Buck of Lincoln County Historical Society, providing room for more display cases.

The following Evangelical ministers served the Little Log Church, from its founding in 1930 to its change in denomination in 1948-50 (dates of service, where available, are noted parenthetically):

  • Rolla J. Phelps (1930-35),
  • DR. Wilfred Fisher (1935-36),
  • Donald R. Lantz (1936-38?),
  • J. Kenneth Wishart,
  • Gerald Jaffee (1938-39),
  • Lyman L. Myers,
  • Robert M. Waggoner,
  • J. Robert Wetzel,
  • A.N. Glanville,
  • Ralph M. Wilde (1948- 3 weeks).

In 1950, two decades after its dedication, the Little Log Church changed denominations. That the process was underway a year or so earlier is indicated by Rev. Wilde’s ‘Conference Notes,’ which show that between 1942 and 1948 the Log Church congregation was being served from Florence, and that when Wilde came to Yachats the church “was already being turned over to the Presbyterians.” And Paul Kearns, Yachats’ ‘summer minister’ for 1949, notes that “The Little Log Church was not yet a Presbyterian congregation [in 1949], but it was being served by the Presbyterian pastor in Waldport in anticipation of being transferred to the Presbytery” (letter to Wendell Beck, 2/16/88).

Marjorie Hays sheds additional light on the transformation: “Tucked away in the hills near Deadwood stands a little country church. Until 1950 it claimed Presbyterian ownership. In counting the flock both in Deadwood and Yachats, it seemed desirable that the two congregations trade properties; so the Little Log Church came under Presbyterian leadership” (p. 94). And a newspaper clipping in Alma Mosher’s scrapbook for the ’50s indicates that during Presbyterian management the manse became “…three small Sunday-school rooms. These inadequate church facilities are being used by an average of 75 to 80 students each Sunday,” the newswriter reports (August [1956?]).

“With the growth of Yachats, Marjorie Hays says, “the church has progressed. In 1957-58 property north of the river bridge was added and a Christian education building was constructed through community participation. Originally, plans were to add a chapel, but in 1969 it seemed advisable, because of church growth and inadequate parking facilities, to sell the river property and look for a more suitable site.”

In 1968 the congregation grew too large for the little building. For a two-year period services were held in Yachats Ladies’ Club. Church members built the new Church of the Agate Windows on Seventh Street and sold the Log Church and property to Lincoln County Historical Society, with the stipulation that the Log Church building be kept as a museum. The banner showing both buildings, handmade by Sunday School members, commemorates the historical moment of change.

Restoring: The 1993 Volunteers

The Little Log Church has been in operation since 1930, first as a church, then as a museum and the site of many weddings.

But in 1992, safety regulations closed the church’s doors. Like many buildings from its era, it lacked a foundation, and moisture had seeped up to sag floors and hollow out what had once been stout log walls. It had to shut down before it fell down.

So it goes, thought many of us in this community of about 600. Nothing lasts forever. Since the building and the site belong to the City (donated by the Lincoln County Historical Society in 1986), the fate of the Little Log Church was debated in council meetings. Costly to repair, said some; beyond repair, said others. Still another group held that tourists to our town needed a parking lot: Raze the building, clear the land, and pave it.

There was an outcry… [and] the conclusion was… it could and should be rebuilt in the location where it had served the community for 63 years. But by what means? Like most towns, Yachats was in a budget crunch.

However, Yachats isn’t like other towns in one way (with a touch of pardonable pride we call ourselves the Gem of the Oregon Coast): people volunteer here. Volunteers run the library, the Chamber of Commerce, the Little Log Church itself. They help out at City Hall; they tend flower barrels; they adopt sections of highway. On beach cleanup days, there are more cleaners than dirty beach. We’re lucky.

So why not let volunteers rebuild the Little Log Church?

I was among those who thought volunteers could supply funds but not labor. So I watched, aghast, as work crews assembled. Retirees. Some in their 80s (Charlie Canfield, 87, headed up the first crew). They’ll wear out, we thought as they worked through the wet spring of 1992. They’ll soon quit, we agreed, as we watched them shovel mud from under crumbling logs in preparation for a cement block foundation. They’ll disappear any day now, we decided, as they jacked up and leveled the frame work, an inch at a time (and there are 14 corners, representing as many angles). They’re slowing down, we pronounced in dire tones, as they cut sides from logs that weighed as much as 300 pounds and fit them into slots around the building.

But by winter of 1993, the daily gathering of pickup trucks around the Little Log Church had become a familiar sight. And even the most persistent doubters began to share the crew’s confidence. By springtime, volunteers had moved inside and were putting 4×8 sheets of insulation into place. Now came finish work: all new electrical, new trim, new paint.

As much as possible, the integrity of the old building has been preserved. Original colors were used throughout-reddish brown on the new logs, beige on original wood floors. New handmade wooden sashes and sills hold antique glass window panes (even cracked ones were patched and reused).

There are, however, modern additions. New track lighting… [to] spotlight historical displays, forced-air heating… [to replace] a pot-bellied wood-burner… a handicapped-accessible restroom. The best of the old combined with the new.

From the beginning, the restoration has been a labor of love, an act of faith.

Contributions from all over the United States (many from couples married in the Little Log Church) were collected by a Friends of the Little Log Church group. The labor force was all volunteer; the youngest was in his 30s, the oldest 87. Some contributions aren’t readily apparent. The logs, for example, bought from a northern Idaho supplier (not available locally anymore) were hauled to Mapleton where Davidson Industries split them. The truckers who hauled them to Yachats “forgot” to send a bill. Many tradesmen worked for nothing; others drove by, saw something they could do, stopped, and did it.

…I asked Verlin [Post], (a youngster at 77 who stepped in when Charlie Canfield had to quit) if he’d take it on again. “Won’t have to,” he said, “It’s done right this time.”

“But what if you had to?” I probed.

“Well, not until after the weekend,” he said, and smiled. We stood together looking out the old wavy window glass at the green hill over Yachats’ shoulder. From here, one can feel the spirit of the past, can almost visualize those old-timers arriving on horseback or in Model T’s for services in the Little Log Church. It’s a good feeling.

(Thanks to: Verlin Post, Ted Schwartz, Charlle Canfield, Ed St. Clair, Bob Hain, Mel and Thelma Phelps, Joe Slelinski, Les Kemmlling, Carl Miller, Bob Oxley, Isabel Prescott, Gene Bertrand, Zeke and Jean Dotson, Jim Bowers. Chuck Lampman, Dave Felchtner, John Griffiths, Russ Barney [and Arthur Roberts], George Staats, Stan Miller, Grethe Cooper, and Frank Cothrell. The real story is the volunteers.)

Preserving: The Museum

When in 1968 the Presbyterian congregation moved into its new premises on Seventh Street, one important stipulation was that the Log Church be maintained as a museum.

The contract transferring the Third Street property (Lots 11 and 12) from Presbyterian ownership to the Lincoln County Historical Society for the sum of $5,000 is dated February 1, 1968; and the deed for the same transaction was issued January 5, 1971, when payments were completed.

Thus the Little Log Church was operated as a museum under the aegis of the Lincoln County Historical Society for nearly sixteen years, until, on November 11, 1986, it was deeded to the City of Yachats. It continues to operate as a museum, featuring both historical artifacts and contemporary works on loan as exhibits, and it is managed now, in 1994, by a five-member Board of Directors.

Many of the exhibits on display date back to pioneer times. The little organ, for example, is the one brought over rough track in a wagon, back in 1927, and since played in many a Sunday service. As viewers look over the exhibits, they may want to begin here.

The Phelps’ small pump organ is dated about 1907. It was restored in 1993, the reeds and interior work done by Russell Barney, and the exterior wood-finishing by Arthur Roberts, both Yachats volunteers. The organ is of a style common in the early 20th century, with built-in holders for kerosene lamps to light the organist’s music.

The organ once sat opposite a pot-bellied stove located at the northwest intersection of the cross-shaped building. The floor still shows marks where the old wood-burner stood to warm early-day worshippers. Choir seats, complete with a low curtain to shield the knees of front-row singers, were located in the west arm of the cross near the organ, to the right of an observer facing the altar rail today.

Still in place are the church’s original carved wood pulpit and altar rail. The Bible usually displayed on the pulpit is inscribed, “The Little Log Church by the Sea, Yachats, Oregon, Presented by the American Bible Society.” It dates from about 1900.

In the pulpit-shelf is an older Bible, illustrated, gilt-edged, bound in embossed leather and in scribed “Agnes M. Dolph,” bearing an 1886 copyright by A. J. Holman & Co., Philadelphia.

On the back wall behind the pulpit is a large seasonal oil painting (oil on bed-sheet,¬†and somewhat fragile, hence normally protected by drapery), “The Three Wise Men,” created in 1954 by Norman Merz and Robert Bunnette. Both artists were church members, and they served during the mid-’60s as art Instructors for several beginning local painters.

The spindle-back chairs located in church and sanctuary were originally used in the old manse, or parsonage.

Among the displays in cases and about the church are many items of historical interest. They include original church furnishings, additional old Bibles and hymnbooks, a 1930 Singer sewing machine used by the church ladies’ sewing circle, and photographs of the Log Church, the Yachats area, and the Alsea Indian sub-agency, all taken in the early decades of the twentieth century.

Also on display: Native American baskets and other artifacts; objects typical of the region (among them glass floats and fishing gear); and such antique personal items as collar boxes, shaving brushes, fans, and clothing. The period wearing apparel includes floor length aprons trimmed in handmade lace, a wedding dress, and two capes, one velvet for winter, and one of brocade for summer wear, donated by Leone Hays of Yachats. The capes (from early 1900s) belonged to Mrs. Hays’ great-grandmother Esther Crippen, born and brought up in Pennsylvania and a Nebraska homesteader.

One showpiece of the museum is the delicately stitched silk-and-velvet Crazy Quilt, displaying a richness in color, an inventiveness in design, and a variety in joining work and embroidery seldom equalled. The quilt was made between 1880 and 1883, and was donated to the museum by Mr. and Mrs. Frank Swayne.

Besides the historical exhibits, the museum displays works created by widely respected local artists, including both permanent donations and works on loan for shows and exhibits.