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Dixon Then and Now: The Methodist Church Is Our Best Connection with Old Silveyville

It's nearing its 150th anniversary

Probably the oldest building in Dixon is the on the corner of B and Jefferson Streets. We’re lucky that it’s been preserved for 145 years. Not that it hasn’t been added to and changed – but it could’ve suffered the fate of the , which was abandoned, fell into disrepair, and recently burned down.

In a word, the church is our best surviving connection with the old town of Silveyville.

Back when the town of Silveyville existed three miles to the north, what was to become Dixon was instead empty farm land. Silveyville had become a small but bustling little place, a waypoint and trading post between the Bay Area and Sacramento. With its store, hotel, saloon, school, post office and 150 people, there was a critical mass of people (well, 12 of them) who wanted to worship together. In 1858 they organized themselves under the direction of a Reverend Leach into a Methodist group.

If you’ve ever wondered where the term Methodist comes from, this branch of Protestantism originated in England as an offshoot of the Church of England, or the Anglican Church, which had some years previously separated from Catholicism and Rome. The term “Methodist” supposedly arose when some of the adherents of its philosophy at Oxford University in England were so strictly regular in their religious devotions and observances that they were thought methodical or method-ists.

At any rate, the group of 12 met variously in the Silveyville school and above the saloon. They were without a pastor some of the time, and the original 12 dwindled to two (with others joining), but with the efforts of new pastors Murphy and Hendon, the movement was revitalized, resulting in the 1866 construction of a church for $14,600 ($63,000 in today’s money). The church’s membership swelled to 98, including those from outlying farms.

When Silveyville was bypassed by what became the transcontinental railroad, most of its residents and buildings (including the church) were moved without much debate to the new town of Dixon, created to be located along the rail line. It’s said that in 1870, mule teams pulled the durable church as it rolled on logs, which probably wasn’t so easy in those days when the land hadn’t yet been smoothed out to lay flat. The story has it that the congregation wanted to locate it in downtown Dixon, but the movers were unable to get it across the railroad tracks. Or perhaps the problem was that it would’ve taken too long to get it across the tracks to avoid passing trains.

At any rate, the landowner, Thomas Dickson, granted title to the land the church is now located on – for a charitable one dollar. As it turned out, this turn of events was lucky, because if the church had located in the downtown, it probably would’ve burned down in the major fire of 1883. Divine intervention? At this time, according to a present-day plaque at the church, the church was called the Methodist Episcopal Church.

Silveyville’s graves were moved to Dixon in 1877.  

About this time, there were Silveyville/Dixon and Binghamton Methodist congregations (I’m not sure what building the Binghamton group met in – Binghamton was the former small town in the vicinity of present-day Hwy. 113 and Binghamton Road). Over time, that group disbanded.

In the early days of Dixon, there were a number of churches associated with mainstream, national/international religious organizations: the Baptists, German Lutherans, Congregationalists, Catholics and Methodists. Most of the churches associated with those denominations no longer exist. In 1875 it was said that the Methodists had a good attendance and good sermons, but no music (Dixon Methodists may have thought church music was immoral), while the Congregationalists had good sermons and music, and the Baptists were the heartiest singers of all.

In the in 1875, a gossipy column had this to say: “We give it up. The mother of the prattling babe in church, which we complained of last week, kindly promises that we shall not have cause to complain again. She very properly wants to know who is to look after the baby at home while she is at church. We give it up; we suppose, however, it’s dear papa who it so closely resembles it in features, (who) will see that it is cared for.”

The Tribune also said, “The past year has been marked with a healthy growth and progress in all the churches in Dixon. The pastors in charge, each and all are earnest and zealous laborers …, beloved by their congregations (and) respected by the entire community. … nowhere does a better Christian fellowship exist between all the churches.” In fact, in 1917 there was an unsuccessful effort to combine all the protestant churches in Dixon.

In 1871 the salary of the Methodist pastor was a slim $600 per year, or $10,700 in today’s dollars. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons why pastors at that time only served a few years. When looking at a list of Methodist pastors between 1880 and 1968, their tenures ranged from one to three years. According to current Pastor Cathy Morris, part of the reason was that many of the pastors were concurrently attending the seminary in Berkeley. However, Pastor Morris has certainly broken out of that mold – she’s held her position for 24 years.

Dixon’s Methodist church has certainly seen its ups and downs. There are a series of reports from Pastor David Deal around 1883 which detail a discouraging tenure.  Church attendance stood at 45 (with about the same number at Binghamton). “It is unpleasant to complain," wrote Pastor Deal, "but our (church members) are so easily diverted from their duties – by the desire to see or hear something new, that our congregation fluctuates. So … the minister and faithful members become discouraged.”

He said that a diphtheria epidemic among children had greatly reduced Sunday school attendance.  

“In the church there is but little to inspire a preacher with courage, either in regard to congregation or finances,” Pastor Deal wrote. “I have been financially embarrassed and had I received all my allowance, I would have barely met my expenses … There are several prominent reasons why our church in Dixon seems not to succeed as we would desire. The first is a want of faithfulness … The second is the character of our population, who (have) prejudice against our church. … You will close my ministry to this people; I have done what I could, and hope my successor will have great success in building up the church.”

Later on, Francis Deal (perhaps a relative) served as Methodist pastor from 1902 to 1903. 

As the years rolled on, and some pastors were more popular and successful than others, the church added to the basic Silveyville building. A separate parsonage (a home where the pastors lived) was built in 1872. In 1927, the church was enlarged westward, adding an elevated choir space, and in 1932, an organ pit for the church’s first pipe organ, which was powered by the organist pushing on a foot treadle. In 1933, the first social hall and kitchen was built on the north side of the church – today, it’s been converted to offices and a meeting room. New, large stained windows were dedicated in 1931. The church’s present pews came from a Methodist church in Stockton during the 1960s.

But the most ambitious addition was the 1989 addition of a new, two-story addition to the back of the church, which offered a fellowship hall, a new kitchen and upstairs classrooms. About this time, present Pastor Morris came on board. In 1999, the original Silveyville church was extensively renovated, with new siding and other improvements.

The original church, instead of a steeple on top, had a cupola encircling the church bell. Later, in 1927, an illuminated and rotating cross was added to the top which could be seen from some distance. However, some dry rot set in and during the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, the bell (which weighs 1500 pounds) was had its moorings damaged and it and the cupola had to be removed. Twenty years later, after some diligent and extended fundraising, a new support structure was built, the bell was returned to its former place of prominence, and a new aluminum steeple was placed over it. This addition was dedicated early this year.

Now the neighbors are getting used to Sunday church bells again. In the old days, when a church member became an octogenarian, the church rang the bell 80 times.   

John and Latoyia Reeb are long-time members of the Methodist congregation. John remembers that during the 1930s, if attendees began to talk among themselves during a service, the pastor could flip a switch under a lectern which illuminated a sign saying, “The Lord is in his holy temple – let all keep silent before him.” On the other side of the church was a prominent board listing the previous service’s attendance figures.

He also remembers helping to remove three or four layers of shingles from the church roof during the late 1950s, and nearly sliding off the edge. He and others eventually came up with a way of dislodging the old shingles from underneath the roof. Pastor Morris says the church is lucky that so many of its members have lent their construction expertise to the church’s various building projects.

Latoyia Reeb said the church still had a pot-bellied stove in the main sanctuary as late as 1954.

The church did have several other challenges to its existence. In the 1950s, a charismatic and existing Methodist pastor left the Dixon church, and many of the congregation left with him as they formed the Neighborhood Church, which I understand was part of the Christian Missionary Alliance. Presently, that church, on ‘H’ Street, is organized as the Grace Fellowship church. This split hit the remaining Methodist church particularly hard, especially financially, and the Methodist church’s women (probably organized as the Ladies Aid) held a number of fundraisers to help out. Also, in 1982 the congregation had to decide whether or not to leave the historic building and build a new church at another location.

Currently a number of groups use the church. Methodist groups include the women’s Grace Circle and youth and adult fellowship groups. There is also a Stephen Minister group (which offers one-to-one help), Bible study groups, Sunday school, two choirs, and a hand bell choir.

Outside groups using the church are Narcotics Anonymous, the AA, and Al Anon (which all meet in the former parsonage); Cub and Boy Scouts, the 4-H, the Historical Society and the Women’s Improvement Club.

During the Great Depression, Dixon’s Methodist church membership dipped to a low of 60. Today, membership is a respectable 300, with average Sunday church attendance around 125. However, Pastor Morris is concerned about the spirituality of Dixon’s young people, writing on the church’s Web site that “Our current generation of children, youth and younger young adults has little connection with a life of faith – just four percent.”  

The church can celebrate the 150th birthday of its central church building in only five years. And it was all made possible when mules couldn’t haul it across the railroad tracks.    

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