Ripley’s Believe It or Not! and the Church of One Tree

ChurchRipley’s “Believe It or Not!” operates “Odditoriums” and other attractions in eleven states, Canada, Mexico and six other countries. These locations do not include his hometown, Santa Rosa California, where the “Church of One Tree” once housed a museum celebrating Robert Ripley.

LeRoy Robert Ripley was born in 1890. While still in his teens, he sold his first cartoon to Life magazine. Shortly after he moved fifty miles south from Santa Rosa to San Francisco, where he began a job as a sports cartoonist for the Bulletin newspaper. He soon moved to the more prestigious, and the still-publishing-today, Chronicle. Five years later, in 1913, he headed east to work for the New York Globe.

The first Believe It or Not! cartoon appeared in 1919. It appeared intermittently for several years until William Randolph Hearst’s King ripley1929Features began its syndication. It soon was appearing in hundreds of newspapers. Ripley began hosting a popular weekly radio program in 1930 on the NBC network.

In 1937, Believe It or Not! was the first to publish the work of another young cartoonist. The picture told of a dog named Spike, “…that eats pins, tacks, and razor blades.” Spike eventually morphed into Snoopy and its owner Charles M. Schulz later took up residence in Santa Rosa.

Ripley featured The Church of One Tree in a Believe It or Not! In 1873, lumberman Rufus Murphy felled a giant redwood tree near Santa Rosa to provide material for the First Baptist Church’s new building. The tree yielded 78,000 feet of lumber, then valued at $1,830. The Baptists built their church from that one tree. Murphy had kept the lumber separate from other trees at his mill. He wanted to build the church from one tree to promote his mill and California redwood. The structure cost about $5,000.

The First Baptist Church moved to larger quarters in the 1950s.The city of Santa Rosa purchased the property for a parking lot. Saving the church became a community project, promoted by the Press Democrat newspaper. The campaign collected $15,000 to save and move the structure to a property next to Julliard Park. A local construction firm dismantled the church and reassembled it at its new location. The city’s Park and Recreation Commission began a project of renting it for concerts and recitals, but without much success. In 1971, the Church of One Tree reopened as the Robert L Ripley Memorial Museum, featuring memorabilia and curiosities related to the famous world traveler and cartoonist. Lack of promotion and general disinterest resulted in its closure after some years.

The church’s latest reincarnation began in 2011. With a $341,000 grant from the state of California and $350,000 from park-development fees, the city began the church building’s rehabilitation. New siding, restored stained-glass windows and handicap access were major parts of the renovation. The single biggest expense was a new roof, costing $105,000 for a church built 130 years earlier for $5,000. The City of Santa Rosa now rents the Church of One Tree for weddings or other events.

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