Ask Me: Unitarians migrated northward from downtown Fresno

By Paula LloydMarch 9, 2013 

Question: What is the history of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Fresno?

-- Harold Hill, Fresno

Answer: Fresno's first Unitarian church began in the late 1800s, according to David Firth, historian for the Unitarian Universalist Church.

Fresno pioneer and Fresno Morning Republican newspaper publisher Dr. Chester Rowell donated land at Tuolumne and O streets for a church building.

The rustic-style church was designed by Charles K. Kirby Jr., who also designed the Fresno First National Bank, Barton Opera House, Fresno Auditorium and O.J. Woodward residence.

Built in 1910, the church had seating for 450 on the auditorium floor and upstairs gallery. Behind the stage, a heavy velvet curtain separated the auditorium from a social hall.

The first congregation disbanded during the Depression in about 1931 and merged with First Congregational Church, according to a church history.

In 1953, five people gathered to organize a new Unitarian-Universalist congregation in Fresno. At first, members met in various locations, including the YMCA and Temple Beth Israel, but the congregation soon bought a building at Balch and Maple avenues.

In the early 1960s, with a membership of about 170 adults and children, the church bought land at Millbrook Avenue and Hampton Way and held services in a house on the property.

In 1965 the church bought the former College Congregational Church building at Shaw Avenue and First Street and had it moved to the Millbrook property.

"We have a short home movie of the move," Firth said.

In August 2007, the congregation moved to a new $4 million facility on Alluvial Avenue east of Chestnut Avenue. The congregation worked with an architect for one year to plan the environmentally friendly building, Firth said. "We wanted something that didn't look like a church," he said.

Today the church has about 350 members.

Question: What is the history of Hornitos? It looks like an abandoned mining town.

-- Skip Severance, Clovis

Answer: The former gold-mining town of Hornitos in the foothills between Merced and Mariposa isn't abandoned, according to local historians.

About 50 people still live in the area, but when Hornitos was incorporated in 1870, it had a population of 500, according to Mariposa History Center board member Tom Phillips, who is researching a book on Hornitos.

Miners and settlers moved to the area in the late 1840s. Gold was discovered in Burns Creek in 1850 and Hornitos was established near the creek in 1852, Phillips said.

Hornitos gets its name from the Spanish word for oven. It was known as "the place of little ovens" because the dead were buried in above-ground adobe brick tombs that resembled ovens.

In "The Gold of Old Hornitos," a history by Hornitos native Francisco Salazar as told to local historian and author Bill Secrest Sr., Hornitos is described as a "rowdy, wild and woolly frontier town" made "fabulously wealthy" by the gold-mining operations.

By the 1860s, Hornitos had a blacksmith, fraternal lodges, jail, post office, Wells Fargo office, stores, 36 saloons and 12 hotels.

St. Catherine of Siena Catholic Church was built in 1863 and is still open for two annual festivals on April 29 and Nov. 2.

Some famous names have been associated with Hornitos. President Ulysses S. Grant is said to have stayed in the Hornitos Hotel, torn down in 1930, and the outlaw Joaquin Murrieta hung out in the area.

Famed chocolate maker Domenico Ghirardelli Sr. once owned a store in Hornitos, but it's a popular misconception that he made chocolate there.

Ghirardelli soon left for San Francisco, where he founded his chocolate factory.

By the time Hornitos was incorporated, it had already begun to fade, as mining dwindled and railroad lines bypassed the town. The California Legislature dissolved the town's incorporation in 1973.

Question: We always enjoyed your column and are certainly glad to see your return, but please tell us what brought you back.

-- Linda and Bill Gorman, Fresno

Answer: Thank you for the warm welcome back. Many readers have told me and The Bee they're glad to see the return of Ask Me.

When I retired in March 2012, I anticipated doing some writing for The Bee when I became eligible to do freelance work after New Year's Day. I've been writing for Central Valley magazine, which publishes in The Bee, since January. When Executive Editor Jim Boren asked recently if I would be interested in resuming Ask Me twice a month, I gladly agreed.

I enjoy being retired, but equally enjoy having a chance to do some writing and especially research and answering questions from our readers.

Paula Lloyd is a freelance writer. Send questions to or by mail to Paula Lloyd, c/o The Fresno Bee Newsroom, 1626 E St., Fresno CA 93786. Please include your name,

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