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Let the Chimes Ring Out
History of Mount Vernon First Baptist Church
and Rev. B.N.L. Davis, 1873 pioneer

(Rev. Davis and wife)
All photos courtesy of Leigh Wilson.

      We have been blessed during our eight years online with many spectacular donations by readers who help us answer important questions about all our common history here in the Pacific Northwest. But then we are sometimes surprised by an addition to the library of Skagit sources that we never saw coming. Such is the situation with a book that we heartily recommend to any reader of history who studies the role of church on the frontier: Let the Chimes Ring Out, by Ed Pierce Jr. and Leigh Wilson. Be ready for a most unusual story of a pioneer church, the amazing minister who launched it and so much more. To coin a phrase, this isn't your grandma's church history. It is more fun than a roof-raising bee.
      The book is "a history of Mount Vernon First Baptist Church," the building now famously standing at the corner of Fifth and Division streets, but first located at the corner of First and Division in 1884, following more primitive beginnings in Harmony and elsewhere. The book begins as a monument to Rev. B.N.L. Davis (Brisbon Napolean LaJeunesse), the first settler above the log jams in 1873, who arrived on the Skagit River that year with his brother J.R.H. Davis (James Robert Harvey). I learned of the book through descendants of Rev. Davis, after they opened my eyes with their compiled, detailed family history. Many Davises are also descendants of the upriver Cockreham family. Leigh insisted that the book was no big deal: "I do want to be very clear that the book was not written, nor was it ever intended to be, a scholarly work." Trust me, Leigh, there are many doctoral candidates who crave your ability to communicate both images and words.
      Some of you may have the good fortune of a book in your library called B.N.L. Davis, a man whom all men delight to honor. Written by Historian Dick Fallis in 1983, it is perhaps the most important of his donations to Skagit history during the year that he led the Skagit County Centennial celebration. His book is one of the two documents that eventually sent me on this Magical History Tour in 1992. I had returned to Skagit County in 1982 for my father's funeral and I stayed long enough to make an offer to restore the Puget Sound Mail, which had recently suspended publication. It had been the oldest continuous weekly newspaper in the state (1859) and Dick had been the publisher before the last one.

      Baptism by immersion in Swinomish Channel, 1888. Rev. Davis was not presiding, but instead Rev. J.G. Pullliam baptizes June Galliger at a location at the southern end of LaConner.

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      On one visit, Fallis me gave a copy of his book and I was taken with this profound passage about Rev. Davis, who in 1873 was fresh from his training in Missouri as a Baptist itinerant preacher. Rev. J.C. Baker recalled:
      The first time the author met this devoted brother," writes Mr. Baker, " was in 1882, at LaConner, Skagit County, where the author had been requested to come and examine conditions relative to the establishing of a house of worship. Brother Davis had taken up the work at this place and organized a church in March of the same year. [Actually written the before the southern half of Whatcom County became Skagit.] He lived eleven miles away [at Riverside], and had come to his appointments on foot following trails across what is known as the LaConner Flats.
      On this Sabbath morning the water was over the flats, and there was some doubt if he would be able to reach his appointment. But good Sister Gaches said, "He will come. He comes sometimes when the water is higher than it is this morning. . . . We stood looking at the hall, wondering if the pastor would come, or anybody else, when we saw a man approaching with high-top gum boots, a coat and a bundle under his arm, and a long stick in his hand. He looked like a pilgrim, and when we greeted him with 'Whither bound?' He replied, 'Is this brother Baker?'
      I said, 'Yes, that's what they call me sometimes; and is this Brother Davis, the pastor?' He replied with an extended hand which, when I grasped it, I knew I had found a friend and a man of God, and ever afterward found that my first impression was correct. I said, 'You look as if you were prepared for emergencies.' 'Yes,' he said, 'I have to wade much of the way; the water was up to my knees, and my long stick is to protect me from the pits.' (Holes washed out by the tides.) 'You must have to start early; they tell me you have to walk eleven miles.' 'Yes,' he replied, 'I start before daybreak. When I get my chores done, I take my lantern and start out.' Asking if he had lsot his lantern, he replied: 'Oh, no; when it gets to be daylight I set my lantern down on a root or stump, and then pick it up on the way back home.'"

      By that point, I was hooked, although it took almost ten more years for me to seriously commit to the Journal research. This Chimes book does not replace Fallis's work, however; instead, it adds to it, and the authors acknowledge how important Dick's research was to them. I add that Dick's research took even more time and dedication than ours does today, because he ferreted out facts the old-fashioned way long before the Internet bloomed.
      As Wilson notes, the book is divided into three parts: the first is a narrative history of the church and Davis, the second is a grouping of interviews with a number of older church members, and the third is a selected batch of photographs from the church archives. Instead of citing redundant facts, we present below parts of the first four pages of Chimes.

A short history of Rev. Brisbon N.L. Davis (an approved excerpt from Let the Chimes Ring Out)
      By all accounts, Brisbon Napoleon Lajeunesse Davis [the first pastor of the original 1884 First Baptist Church] was an extraordinary man. Born in East Tennessee on November 20, 1849, he soon demonstrated an exceptional energy, drive, and endurance among his brothers and playmates. This laudable characteristic was to continue with him his entire life, along with his friendly nature and strong faith in the Lord. His marked zeal for learning, at a time when most men received little if any formal education, saw him through the local schools, Tennessee College, and finally the Baptist school at Neodesha, Kansas, where in 1870 he was ordained as a Baptist minister. B. N. L. Davis almost immediately headed to the Pacific Northwest in the company of his brother, J. R. H. (Harvey) Davis, arriving above the great logjam curve known as "The Devil's Elbow" on the Skagit River in 1873.
(First church location)
Davis Memorial Baptist Church, the original church building located at First and Division Streets, Mount Vernon, Washington. The inset portrait is of Rev. S.A. Abbot, who revitalized the congregation after the untimely death of B. N. L. Davis in 1891 after he contracts influenza while visiting an ill elderly church member.

      On the south side of the water, on a high hill upriver from the logjam, the minister built his home and began a successful, lifelong vocational interest in farming. At what became known as Riverside, including most of present north and northeast Mount Vernon, B. N. L. Davis developed an extensive ranch of 1,300 acres, extending from lands west of modern-day Interstate 5 eastward into the Nookachamps Basin. His operation included gardens, orchards of cherry, apple, and prune trees, a major dairy with creamery, and grazing and breeding facilities. It was he who introduced the first Holstein cattle into Skagit County and he was among the first to pioneer that famous dairy breed in the State of Washington. He imported eighteen purebred cows and eight young registered Holstein bulls in 1885, the first to be brought to the valley, and the first purebred Holstein calf born in Washington belonged to the Davis herd as well. His horses were frequently listed among the prize winners at fairs as far away as Portland and Vancouver, B. C. The great barn he built across from his house sheltered all of the residents of the Skagit Valley when the river flooded, and it stood until 1958 as a testament to his wise planning [see "The Fairview Farm Stock Barn of B. N. L. Davis," page 105].
      In 1881, with a home and sufficient means, the young minister traveled back to McMinn County, Tennessee to claim Doliska Beauregarde [Cockreham] as his bride. Doliska, named after a Civil War general, was a young woman of eighteen with great pluck and strong faith, and the couple soon returned to Mount Vernon.
      [Skagit River Journal ed. note: as we discussed with Leigh, Doliska's family name was spelled Cockreham with a "K." Many people have been confused about this through the years because another Scottish family with the name Cochreham briefly moved onto the island in the late 19th Century. We have corrected the spelling hereon out.]

(First Baptist Church, Mount Vernon)
      Other Cockrehams and Davis family members followed to the Skagit River's upper reaches, and a portion of its flow on a cradling bend among the hills between Hamilton and Lyman is still known as Cockreham Valley. Reverend Davis was also highly active and much respected in civic affairs, and served as county treasurer in 1890. To this man of God, however, none of this mattered nearly as much as his lifelong commitment to his role as minister and servant of the Lord among the people of the Skagit River Valley.
      Rev. Davis was known everywhere upriver and downriver as a man "available at all times for baptisms, weddings, funerals, church services, and personal comforting and counseling, anytime and anywhere.
      He was frequently called on to take medicines or other necessities to people in isolated locations, being often the only one available who could get there or who knew the way over flooded, trackless fields, or through heavy forests." One instance is mentioned where in the dead of night, with only a lantern in hand, he walked through woods and marshes over a distance of eleven miles to La Conner, the nearest point of medical aid, to consult a doctor and return with medicine for the seriously ill child of a settler. And Rev. Davis worked hard at building both the structure and the spirit of Baptist churches in Skagit County. He founded Harmony Church in 1873, a church at Skagit City in 1881, and Hopewell Church in the same year at the home of H. B. Peck.
      The Bethesda Church in La Conner was organized by B. N. L. Davis in 1882 at the old courthouse building, and later built its own substantial structure, which is now the Methodist Church in the town. He often preached and held regular prayer meetings at Padilla and Pleasant Ridge, and helped the La Conner church establish flourishing branches at Ridgeway, Bay View, and Fir. He frequently hiked in the dark across the Conway marshes from his home in Mount Vernon, with nothing but a lantern left on a stump to guide him home, so as to arrive in time to preach a sermon. And to serve the New Hope Church, established near Lyman, he traveled "on a fifty-mile round trip via canoe, with and against the varying currents in a river that was still treacherous with snags, log rafts, and other obstructions."
      Because of shifting demographics and enterprises, many towns and many churches did not survive over the years in the early American West. Mount Vernon, however, was to become the dominant exception to that rule along the Skagit, and its First Baptist Church remains strong and active to this present day. The church was founded by B. N. L. Davis on April 27, 1884, with a series of meetings conducted during Easter season by Reverend Davis and Reverend N. B. Homan. On June 4, 1884, the church was incorporated in the Territory of Washington with J. H. Moore, George Taylor, and B. N. L. Davis as trustees. In that same year, the fledgling church joined with the Puget Sound and British Columbia Association of Baptists. The beginning congregation of four members had no building of its own, but by 1885 had secured two lots on the corner of First and Division. These were across the street from the [future] Carnation Milk Company, near where the ferry crossed the river and where today the [1892-93] bridge crosses to west Mount Vernon.
      By 1885 there were ten members but no Sunday School. In 1886 the church had continued to grow and thus dismissed with blessing seven members to aid in organizing the church at Avon. The growing congregation also began to build its first church building, and in 1887 it had "a house enclosed." Even so, it was some time before the church was finished and furnished sufficient for dedication, which did not take place until November 17, 1889, when it was described as "a very comfortable and tasty church." The Skagit County History records that the edifice cost $2,500.00 to construct, and it was the first church to be built in Mount Vernon.
      The building was located right out amongst the stumps. Hear the words of Jules Fredlund, a charter member who remained active for many, many years:
      "When I came here. in 1901, there were stumps everywhere. The only sidewalks, and they were few, were wooden ones. There was no Street paving until 1911, even in town. The roads were just winding trails through the woods. But even at that, the old timers would tell, and truthfully, of the great advances that had been made in roads and other evidences of a settled country." During these initial years when the church could ill afford a pastor, Rev. Davis faithfully acted in that capacity with the aid of occasional visiting missionaries and others. A good Sunday School was begun, and the church began to take a leading part in the Christian work of the city.
      "In the midst of [his considerable] influence, acclaim, popularity, and sincere respect, B. N. L. Davis died unexpectedly on May 8, 1891, at the age of forty-one. The cause of his death was listed as 'LaGrippe,' or influenza, contracted as a result of going out across swampy land during chilly weather, to comfort an aging woman who was dying of influenza. He died at his own home . . . just to the north of the bustling, thriving county-seat town [of Mount Vernon] that hadn't even been there in prospect eighteen years before, when he had come there as the first to settle permanently 'above the jam.' As [that] front page article in the newspaper said, he was a man of solid accomplishment and 'a man whom all men delighted to honor and to call their friend.' The editor of the Skagit News wrote that, 'His memory will be cherished as long as any of the people live who were personally acquainted with his sturdy and honest character."' The congregation he had led soon declared, "It is a unanimous vote of the organization that the name of the church should be called the 'Davis Memorial Baptist Church of Mount Vernon, Washington,' in memory of the late Rev. B. N. L. Davis, the pioneer Baptist Minister of Skagit Valley."

(3rd church location)
      This is a 2006 view of the third location of the Davis Memorial Church in Mount Vernon, at the southwest corner of Fifth and Division streets. This church was erected in 1923 and only the lower floor and mezzanine were used until 1935.

      Thus passed the founding father of virtually every early Baptist church along the Skagit River, but he left an enduring legacy. A great sense of energy, compassion, evangelism, friendliness, and service for the Lord has remained a central vision of the church and its congregation to this day. The sudden and untimely death of B. N. L. Davis initiated at Davis Memorial Baptist Church what was then a fairly typical cycle for young churches in the distant and sparsely settled reaches of the United States. Because congregations were usually quite small and could rarely provide an adequate full-time salary (or any salary at all), ministers often came and went fairly quickly and maintaining and supporting facilities was difficult as well. In 1889 Reverend W. P. Squires was called to the pastorate with aid from the Baptist Home Mission Society. He resigned in November of the same year and was succeeded by the Reverend E. Faxon, who served until sometime in 1891. Both pastors each in turn had occasionally called upon Reverend Davis when they were unable to preach on a particular Sunday. When B. N. L. Davis unexpectedly died, there was suddenly no pastor at all and the congregation had few resources.
      Doliska Davis, even though newly widowed at age twenty-eight, remained an active officer of the little church, and at one point shortly after the death of her husband was left holding a mortgage on the building during the financial panic of the early 1890's. She may have acquired the building through her husband's estate in that he may have paid for its construction and owned it all along, or she may have loaned money to the church and acquired the building by default of payment; the record is not clear. What is known is that Doliska Davis offered to rent the church to the congregation for ninety-six dollars a year, or eight dollars per month less her own contribution of one dollar, or seven dollars a month. Church members, however, wanted to establish permanence, and so Mrs. Davis sold the building to the congregation for five hundred dollars. As 1891 continued on, Reverend G. Taylor then served as pastor for a short period of time — perhaps a year. Reverend W. A. C. Rouse became pastor in 1892, and Reverend W. P. Squires succeeded him in turn. The record of his service is incomplete: there is no surviving church document from his arrival in 1893 until the re-organization of the church on February 21, 1895.

More about the book and the family
      That is just the beginning of the first chapter. Wilson goes on to show how the First Baptist Church grew over the next century. He profiles many families who made up the congregation through several generations, including: Egbers, Fredlun (Jules Fredlund was the last of the charter members to pass away in 1968), Hobbs, Boynton, Moore, Ozment, Pierson, Polson (Alf passed on as the book was written), Stendal (Bill and Eloise Stendal married in the church in 1949). He also profiles Ed Pierce, who welcomed Leigh to the church after returning to the Skagit Valley in 1989 and who helped Wilson profile many of the families and organize the history of the church.
      In the final section of the book, Wilson explains the basic Baptist beliefs and explains how Rev. Davis's Fairview Farm Stock Barn thrived as the center of the valley's early dairy industry after Davis's initial emphasis on hop farming. He also includes a detailed remembrance by Cora Edith Hayton Polson who was born on a farm near Mann's Landing in 1880, the daughter of pioneer of Thomas Hayton who moved his family here from Missouri via covered wagon. Finally he shares photographs from all three eras of the church through today.
      Wilson is a member of Rev. Davis's fourth generation. He was aided by cousins and aunts and uncles who have met regularly over the years to communicate the family's legacy to each new generation. Historians Dan Royal, Tom Robinson and I met with them in October 2008 as family members from age four to 89 broke bread at the Royal Fork restaurant in Mount Vernon. The other Davis and Cockreham descendants wish to remain anonymous for now, but we owe them much for helping understand the importance of their ancestors and the church itself. After a lunch, we traveled to Cockreham Island, where we toured the original Robert E. Cockreham farm, most recently owned by farmer Ron Kaaland and sold this summer to a Canadian farm who plan to specialize in growing blueberries, a rapidly growing cash crop in the valley.
      A limited number of books are available, by mail for now, because the original printing was just large enough to supply members of the congregation. Wilson has set a price of $20 retail for the book and you may order it directly by emailing him at This is the first of a series on the Davis and Cockreham families. You can read Dick Fallis's profile of Rev. Davis at Dan Royal's Stump Ranch website: Wilson also cites a 1912 Baptist History of the North Pacific Coast by former pastor Rev. J.C. Baker, and Bess Hudson's 1964 unpublished manuscript, A History of the Davis Memorial Baptist Church.

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