St. John's Church

Welcome to the Payette ID GenWeb Project

History of St. John's Church
From National Register of Historic Places Registration Form, December 01, 2012
by Sally Ragsdale

The community of Payette, Idaho is nestled at the confluence of the Snake and Payette Rivers in western Idaho near the Oregon border. The fertile valley has been the home of one of Idaho's most abundant fruit-growing industries for over a century. David Lamme certainly saw the endless possibilities of this new land. Although not the first in the area, Lamme was a young entrepreneur following the railroad when he happened upon the area surrounding Payette in May 1883. He immediately saw his future in the lush grasses alongside the railroad tracks and set out to prove himself. He decided to call his new village Boomerang. Boomerang and Lamme began with a small general store known as Falk's. Falk's was already a mainstay in Boise City, and now it spread its hold to Boomerang. Falk's was responsible for supplying the incoming citizens with all the supplies they would need for their new lives in this foreign environment. Yet David Lamme was not alone for long; he was soon joined by shop owners A.B. and F.C. Moss in 1884. Within the next few years, Boomerang gained more citizens and its name was soon changed to Payette, in honor of Francoise Payette, a Hudson Bay Company employee and early explorer in the area.

In 1890, a German syndicate sent representatives to Payette, as they were interested in real estate in the area. A number of these German immigrants had been in Boise for several years, investing and building, and were eager to explore the surrounding areas to gain more property for agriculture. When they heard of the bountiful valley near the Payette River, they felt that would be the next best move. They were credited with the construction of several brick buildings in downtown Payette and invested more than $200,000 in the area over several years. Many of these buildings still stand, a lasting tribute to the early days of the German interest in Payette. As the population continued to grow, it became clear that Payette could no longer be considered a village, and in 1891 it was incorporated into a town. Given the promising soil and acres of land, many residents began planting fruit trees, alongside their other crops. This allowed for Payette to grow into one of the most prominent locations in Idaho for fruit shipping and sales. Again, German interest showed in this endeavor as well. Many of the German residents invested in more land to increase their plantings of fruit bearing trees. In 1891, after a few short years of growing, Payette shipped out its first train car of fruit, which was soon followed by several more the next year. Payette was soon well known for its fruit production.

Payette was settled by people from a wide variety of European countries, notably England, the Netherlands, Ireland and Italy. The German population was particularly strong however, and continues to be: the current percentage of Payette residents with German ancestry is approximately 18% percent (2013), far higher than that of other nationalities. While the numbers may have dwindled throughout the years, it is easy to say that Payette had an overwhelming number of German immigrants around its founding. Payette was initially inhabited with the same cast of characters that built up so many small upstart towns: "First, came the trappers, next precious metal prospectors, then traders with their families accompanied the cattlemen and farmers. After the way was paved, the professionals moved in to tell the people how they should live. These were the ministers, teachers, lawyers and doctors." (Dee Klenck, The Gems of Payette County, page 1 (Payette, Idaho: Gem Publishing Company, 1989) And, as with any new town, trials and triumphs defined its creation. Those that began their lives in the early days of Payette experienced great hardships. The Payette River flooded most springs and the summer heat withered many crops. Winters were bitterly cold and seemed to last forever. Through it all the residents persevered, fighting for their dreams, bound together by their drive to succeed. Yet life in Payette was not entirely focused on agriculture and financial matters. Religion and faith were also very important to the livelihoods of the citizens.

In the early days of Payette, church services were few and far between. As there were not yet any specific structures built for the purpose of worship, stores and homes were often offered up for services. These services were dependant on the faith of the visiting clergyman. One visiting reverend, Reverend E. Hopkins of the Methodist faith, was visiting and wrote kindly about the people of Payette. "Their faith in Idaho is boundless. Their numbers are few and they are dependent on each other. A bond exists that binds them to each other with bands that are stronger than steel; having themselves gone through the hardships and privations that accompany pioneer life, they know how to sympathize with the newcomer" (Dee Klenck, The Gems of Payette County, page 10-11 (Payette, Idaho: Gem Publishing Company, 1989). Most residents attended these services, whether in their faith or not. Any service was better than none, in their opinion. These roaming services continued until more settlers arrived in Payette. Sharing a common faith and heritage, the growing German population formed their own house of worship, near the center of town.

They wanted to create an organization in which they could convene and celebrate their heritage and faith. David Lamme's hall made the ideal backdrop for this conversation, and such progress was made that the group was able to organize and create "a society for mutual aid, to be called the German Society of Payette Valley" (Idaho Statesman, June 15, 1895). Within this society, the German population was able to embrace their heritage in a foreign land with meetings and religious services in their native tongue. The group eventually set their sights on acquiring a permanent location for their meetings and services. Reverend Knappe, who had been in Payette for several years, led the push for the new church building. Land was found and purchased in June 1901. The building of the church was swift and the parishioners found themselves in their new house of worship in 1902. Their new church was incorporated in January 1902 as the German Lutheran St. John's Church of Payette, Idaho and they appointed Frederich Hansen as their clergyman. At this point, the church was valued at $700.00. The church continued to celebrate their heritage with large picnics and functions, all which brought in money to help pay for the church and its upkeep.

The early days of the church saw rapid changes in its congregation. New ministers were brought in and found that their opposing theologies began to cause significant rifts in the congregation. Adding to that tension were economic issues. As Payette grew, more of the German population became involved in its economy. Many of the original church members saw their wealth increase significantly as they invested in banks, small businesses, social and agricultural societies. Some of the Payette Germans felt it was un-Christian and immoral to hold stock in banks, be involved in politics, or invest in businesses outside of the church and private needs. A separation was in the wind. Those members, who had been shunned for their beliefs in unions, stocks and the economy, sought a new branch of their faith.

The autumn of 1908, saw the creation of a new church and re-organized congregation. With the help of Reverend F.H. Freund, the new church was named, The Lutherische St. Johannis Gemeinde zu Payette, Idaho. The Evangelical Synod of North America welcomed this new party with open arms. Following this, the newly-founded church set out to create a permanent building in which they could worship in comfort. Two lots were found, 7 and 8, in block 5 of the Platt addition in Payette, and were then purchased for $700.00. Through committee gathering and donations of the congregation, a fund of $1400.00 was raised to begin building the new church. The church building was to be 30 feet by 50 feet, with 12 foot ceilings and 3 foot foundation. The plan was submitted on August 7, 1910 and approved shortly thereafter. The congregation continued to raise funds through the winter and by April 1911, the building committee was given the nod of approval to build the new church, with funds of $1500.00 for the building itself and an extra $500.00 for incidentals. In total, the committee borrowed $1000.00 from the Extension Fund Board of the German Evangelical Synod of North America and raised the additional funds themselves. The loan was fully repaid within 7 years.

The cornerstone of the church, which still remains a central focus, was laid on July 9, 1911 . The building swiftly took form after that. In August, the church was officially registered as the German Evangelical Lutheran Church, Limited, of Payette, Idaho. Although the group had voted to remove St. Johannes from the official title, it would return in 1923, as St. John's. The new building was dedicated on November 26, 1911 by Reverend Freund, president of the Pacific Northwestern Mission District of the Evangelical Synod and the church's new pastor Reverend Heggemeier. The event was detailed in the Payette Enterprise on November 23, 1911 . Much ado was made about the total cost of the building $4000.00 and the new pastor. In 1918, the church committee felt it necessary to build a parsonage next to the church. They acquired a "redi-cut" house from Michigan and constructed it for the Reverend and his family. A garage was also added to the property in 1924. Maintaining their German heritage was important to the congregation, and services continued in German for several years, with two services in English every month. Church records show that the German language continued to be used through World War I, despite unkindness and prejudices displayed towards those of German heritage. In 1924, a new secretary was appointed to the church upon which records were kept in English from this point out. Records also indicate the Americanization of some traditional German names, indicating a desire to conform to American ideals and standards. Around this same time, 1937, records show that it was determined that German services were to be terminated, unless by special request.

The church continued to go through growing pains, altering the name of the church, moving from German Lutheran to Evangelical Lutheran, and then in 1930 it was referred to as Evangelical Lutheran St. John's Church. In 1934, as a result of a merger between the Evangelical Synod and the Reformed Church, the church was then named St. John's Evangelical Reformed. But this name would not last for long, already there were rumors of another merger between two denominations. In 1944, the two groups began meeting and holding conferences to see if they could successfully merge their beliefs into one strong unit. In 1958, four church bodies made up of two denominations, all merged to create the United Church of Christ. The United Church of Christ is made up of the General Convention of the Christian Church, the National Council of the Congregational Church, the Evangelical Synod of North America and the Reformed Church of the United States. The congregation of St. John's officially changed the name of their church to St. John's United Church of Christ on September 9, 1958.

Although the church congregation did not experience massive growth, it soon became evident that more room was needed for the congregation to spread out. In the 1950's, it was felt that the congregation would be better served by a new church building. Fund drives began, but after ten years, a lack of funds raised prompted the committee to disregard this plan for a more feasible one. In 1965, excavation began under the church building to create a basement space large enough for the congregation to gather for Sunday school, including a small kitchen and areas for fellowship gatherings. It was also agreed upon to build on to the rear of the original building to add two restrooms and an area for the pastor's study. The basement addition measures 24 feet by 44 feet, and runs the length of the original building. The addition on the rear of the building measures 24 feet by 28 feet. Both additions were completed in 1966. One more addition to the original structure remains. In 1985, the church committee began a fund drive for three stained glass windows designed by a former member of St. John's. Funds were raised and the windows were installed in 1986. The windows depict the historical roots of the church and remain a central focus and wonderful addition to the charms of the church. Located at the front of the church, the largest window bathes the outer hall in a peaceful blue light, while the other two windows overlook the front foyer, one above the main door and the other off to the side.

Within the building itself, the original sixteen pews still line the aisle. Colorful throws drape over the edge, a slight nod to the aging congregation. The interior of the building has experienced few changes, beside the windows in 1986, the pews were re-upholstered in the late 1960's or early 1970's, as was the floor re-carpeted. The interior woodwork is also original, thought the current pulpit was added at some point in the 1980's. Despite these updates, of which there are relatively few, the church retains a quaint and cozy feel, perfect for a small congregation proudly holding to their German roots and heritage. Many of the congregation members are third and fourth generation descendents of the original founding members. As Payette continued to grow, so did the number of churches available in the area. Although many sprang up, St. John's remains one of the few from the earliest days of the town's founding. This stands as a testament to the faith of the congregation in their beliefs and tenacity.

The building stands as a reminder to the town of its German heritage and the debt it owes to the German investors that came through Payette more than 100 years ago. Without the German syndicates investing, Payette may have looked very different. With the German influence, Payette was able to rapidly grow and create a community of agriculture and business entrepreneurs that served it well. The faith of the German population has remained unaltered as well. Strength in their belief has kept the church building prominent in their hearts. As it celebrated its 100th anniversary, residents of Payette stop to admire one the building that has stood the test of time in their small town. It is a beacon of faith for all, young and old, believers and doubters, curious and knowledgeable; St. John's United Church of Christ opens its doors for all who wish to enter. St. John's United Church of Christ is a simple and modest building. Built out of faith in their beliefs, the congregation has continued to use the building for 100 years. With some minor renovations and additions, the building has served its purpose well. The interior is friendly and comforting as is the congregation. It is a lovely testament to the faith of the Germanic people that helped to populate Payette over 100 years ago, that the house of their beliefs is still standing and active today.

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