Klamath Tribes acquire Williamson River Methodist Church and a 2-acre lot on Modoc Point Road

While no longer functioning as a church, its memories are still remembered fondly

Williamson River Indian Mission United Methodist Church, as it was named upon its dedication in 1876, is located on Modoc Point Road. The church’s original mission was to proselytize the indigenous inhabitants of the Klamath Basin, the Klamath and Modoc. Fast-forward nearly 150 years, and the Klamath Tribes can officially declare this historic building on their own.

“From the records we saw, it appeared that the Methodist Church donated this property to the Klamath Tribes,” said Klamath Tribes Planning Director Jared Hall. This sheds light on the long path the Tribes took before resolutely acquiring this historical building and the parcel of land on which it sits. While an error in accounting for the deed slowed the process of the transfer, Klamath Tribes members nevertheless expressed excitement. They reminisced about their fond memories of the church and its community functions.

However, a simple numerical error in the legal description prevented the deed from being promptly conveyed to the Klamath Tribes.

“So originally, the county just thought it was an error when we tried to correct the deed,” said Hall. “And when they saw that it wasn’t on the old deed that was conveyed twice – well, you can’t do that – unless you go back and unwind the old deeds.”

To unwind the old deeds, it was necessary to find the original Methodist Church author who signed the deeds over. In 2019, the Klamath Tribes Planning Department reached out to the Methodist Church. In turn, the Church put the Tribes in contact with some individuals in Idaho who were able to identify the signatory in the deed. Regardless, the signatory could not be tracked down, stymieing plans to acquire the church and its lot.

More dead ends followed before the Planning Department once again contacted the County, inquiring who or what entity possessed title to the land and church. The answer was simple: The Forest Service. “They just rolled it into the same lot as the Forest Service’s lot that surrounded the property,” said Hall, explaining the County’s decision to grant the Forest Service rights on the allotment.

The Forest Service then had no reservations about ceding the land to the Tribes. “They basically told the County that the parcel that the Tribes is claiming is not theirs and that it needed to be transferred back into the Tribes name,” said Hall.

Georgene Nelson, Director of the Klamath Tribes Language Department, was elated at hearing about the Tribes’ recent acquisition and shared with the Klamath Tribes News some of her fond memories of the church. “That church used to be filled,” said Nelson, “and it’s tiny to begin with, but it was filled to capacity with people even standing outside for funerals, or oftentimes for Easter celebrations, Christmas celebrations, and of course, the weekly Sunday services.”

The church site played a major role in Nelson’s childhood, functioning as a major point of community get-togethers. “We used to go out there, and there would be big dinners,” she said. “People would bring potluck foods like fried chicken and fry bread, casseroles, and pies, cookies – you name it, it was there.”

Nelson got married at the Williamson River Church, though she admits she was a regular attendee of all the local Methodist churches. “I was the kind of kid that went to any church that served food,” said Nelson with a hearty laugh.

Nelson said her grandmother played a significant role in her faith. “My grandmother actually is the one who taught me to rotate churches,” she said, ‘God is everywhere.’ So, it didn’t matter what building we went into.”

“My brother, Harold, asked, ‘What are they going to do with that church?’ And he goes, ‘They should turn it into an art sanctuary.’ And I go, ‘They should turn it back into a church,’” Nelson reminisced.

What becomes of the newly acquired property still needs to be hashed out.

Inside the Williamson River Church. (Ken Smith/Klamath Tribes News)

The county has a tax exemption for nonprofit organizations, which include church organizations. “Since that property got conveyed to us, and it wasn’t owned and operated as a church or nonprofit anymore because we’re a tribal sovereign government, they went ahead and enrolled it back in the tax system,” explained Hall.

The County reappraised the former church’s value in excess of half a million dollars, dramatically increasing the taxes on the building and land. How the County arrived at this figure is befuddling to some, as Hall acknowledged that parts of the property are beyond repair, though he does believe the main chapel is salvageable.

“Part of it will probably at least need to be reconstructed because you can just see the structural integrity of the building’s failing,” said Hall. “Certain parts may not be, but there are certain parts that are – you can see rooflines and hip joints have started to sink and sag.”

“We have a lot of tribal members who live out there towards the lake,” said Hall. “To them, they have a family history, whether as a kid, they participated in some events or whatever. I think there’s some interest. Maybe one day, we can sit down and discuss what the need and what the motivation is to get that property enhanced,”