One hundred and forty years ago, when people thought about Fairplay, it brought to mind the booming gold and silver mines and the landbound “ships” that did the dredging for the placer miners. Fairplay was still busy earning its place in the annals of the Colorado Gold Rush. But during the summer of 1872, a man who was to become a legend in the worlds of Christian missions and education arrived in Fairplay and set about organizing the second highest (altitude) church in the history of Presbyterianism. This “stubby, little sawed-off man with a grizzled beard” was Sheldon Jackson. The church he founded with a congregation of eight on that summer morning was the First Presbyterian Church of Fairplay; later to be renamed the South Park Community Church.
Dr. Jackson was superintendent of Presbyterian missions for the entire area which we know today as the states of Montana, New Mexico, Utah, Colorado and Arizona. Headquarters were established in Denver and Dr. Jackson set about the job of organizing and building frontier churches.
In May, 1874, the small congregation in Fairplay applied to the Board of Home Missions for $1,200 to build a church with an additional $200 to come from the congregation. The request was granted and the church building was ordered from a mail order catalog to be delivered by rail from Chicago. The church building was completed and Reverend Jackson was on hand for the dedication on October 4th, 1874. Dr. Jackson built 22 churches in Colorado and over 100 in the American West. How many were built in the style of the Fairplay church is unknown, but few, if any, still exist today.
The following represent some of historical perspectives as gleaned from many years of Church Session minutes:
On March 7th, 1875, the first Church Elder was elected. His name was Lewis W. Lewis.
On April 11th, 1875, the church bell was dedicated. It is said the only thing that could be heard in this town above the dreadful noise of the dredge was this bell. It was used not only to bring folks to church, but since it was the only bell in town at that time, it was used by the school and the fire department as well.
On July 2nd, 1880, two people from the Presbyterian Church of Canada visited the churches of South Park, Alma, Fairplay, Horseshoe, Leadville, Sacramento Mine, Harsel Springs and Park City. They found "disorganized conditions".
In 1880, the Fairplay church financially met their own expenses and also provided a horse for the pastor to get from place to place.
In 1901, one of the female members was dropped from the rolls at her own request because she "preferred dancing and the companions there found, to the fellowship of the Lord's Supper".
In 1902, the church was re-roofed and repairs were made inside.
In 1916, church membership stood at 56 with 27 members from Alma, 19 from Fairplay and 10 from Hartsel.
In 1919, the Church was in need of a car and was looking for a very good year.
On June 27, 1923, plans were made to ask for a grant from the Board of Church Erection to build a manse. (Apparently, the grant was made since the manse was built in 1923, still stands and is in use at the northeast corner of 6th Street and Hathaway).
On March 17th, 1938, a hanky shower was held for Mrs. Cessna who was moving away. (This item is included because the Mrs. Cessna referenced was the mother of Rev. James Cessna who along with his wife Carolyn, are currently members of the church. While Jim knew he was born in Fairplay, he had no idea his parents were members of this same small white church some 75 years before.)
Over the last 140 years, the fortune's of the little white church have continued to wax and wane along with the fortunes of the entire South Park area. In 1977, the Sheldon Jackson Memorial Chapel was added to the National Register of Historic Places. The small but vibrant congregation of today continues to honor our history and our mission to the Fairplay area.