ROCKVILLE — Weddings, funerals and church services take place at Rockville Chapel behind the stone walls of volcanic ash, magnesium and other particles, just as they have since pioneer days.
Human life is commemorated and celebrated there, 156 years after that stone was hewn from local hills. This is a state landmark and Solano County historical building that is still used for something close to its original purpose.
True, the church that once owned the building long ago gave it to the Rockville Cemetery District. The chapel walls are only a stone’s throw from the headstones of the cemetery.
But this stark building with a few modest architectural features on the exterior remains in use. The district rents out the chapel for weddings and holds funerals there prior to burials in the cemetery. It rents out the chapel to the Church of Christ for weekly services.
And the district cares for the chapel. It did a renovation job about five years ago, sanding down the floor and putting in new windows and pews.
“Everything is a replica of the original,” said Doris Goodrich, general manager for the Suisun Fairfield Rockville Cemetery District.
At least, to a point. Goodrich said the old pews were a little small for comfort. Apparently, people have grown wider since 1856.
There is a reason that the district treats the chapel with such respect – to honor those Suisun Valley pioneer families from long ago.
“It’s a historic landmark and (Rockville Cemetery) is a pioneer cemetery,” Goodrich said. “Most of the families who built the original building are buried here around the chapel.”
Local resident Barbara Van Putten grew to appreciate the chapel more than a quarter-century ago.
“I would drive by but didn’t know enough to go beyond that,” she said. “Then I heard (local historian) Ernie Wichels speak about the history of our area and got really interested.”
She attended a Christmas Eve service put on in the chapel by a Green Valley couple and had the task of giving a talk about the building.
“When I delved into the history, I just really, really found out how important this building is,” Van Putten said. “I have a soft spot for it.”
That history began amid a burst of religious enthusiasm in the sparsely populated pioneer-era Suisun Valley, with valley residents Landy and Sarah Alford playing an important role.
Landy and Sarah Alford came to California from Missouri by wagon train in 1846, going along with the Donner Party at one point, but separating before that ill-fated group got stranded amid a snowy Sierra Nevada. The Alfords ended up at the Suisun Valley hamlet of Rockville in 1849. This was a year before California entered the Union and only a few hundred pioneers lived in what would soon become Solano County.
The Alfords found success in Suisun Valley. Landy Alford was probably the wealthiest farmer living there, according to the April 14, 1852, Sacramento Daily Union. The Alfords lived in a cottage “that would compare favorably with those in a New England village,” the paper reported.
Landy Alford was a prominent enough citizen that J.P. Munro Fraser described him in the 1879 book, “History of Solano County,” several years after Landy Alford’s death.
“He was a man brought up on the frontier, and, as usual with such characters, lacked those more refined qualities which education and contact with society brings,” Fraser wrote. “A man who was passionately fond of hunting, and when not engaged in the pursuit of deer, bear or other wild animals or recounting his exploits to interested listeners, was silent, reserved and almost moody.”
A huge Methodist Episcopal Church South gathering took place in Rockville in 1856, with hundreds of people coming by horseback to camp out for the events, which included full-immersion baptisms in Suisun Creek. The gathering lasted for 11 days. Whether the Alfords attended or not is unclear, though the family at the very least must have been aware of the event.
“Good order and harmony prevailed all the time there, and at the conclusion of the meeting, it was announced that 42 persons had just joined the church,” a correspondent who called himself or herself only A.M. wrote in the Benicia-based Solano Herald newspaper.
The 1856 Suisun Valley camp planted a seed that swiftly bore fruit. Before it ended, Rev. Baily, the county’s presiding elder, proposed to build a church on that very site.
“He asked for $3,000, but when the people started giving, there was no stopping them, until they had got down $4,000,” A.M. wrote.
Landy Alford apparently wasn’t a member of the congregation, but he provided land for the stone chapel and cemetery. A history written by his granddaughter cites documents showing he deeded 2 acres to the Methodist Episcopal Church South for $50, or almost $2,000 in today’s dollars. Other histories say he donated 5 acres to the church, with the $50 covering the legal fees.
The Oct. 11, 1856, Solano Herald had another letter from Suisun Valley, this time from a correspondent called only C.
“The Methodist church in course of erection on the site of the late campground is progressing finely,” C wrote. “On last Friday, the cornerstone was laid.”
Workers built at a rapid clip. They finished constructing the chapel in only a couple of months, in time for Christmas 1856, according to some Rockville chapel histories. Joel Price and George Whitley of Suisun City supervised the work done with stone from the nearby hills.
The church thrived at first. Local residents could go and listen to such speakers as Orcenith Fisher, nicknamed “Voice of Thunder” because he was used to preaching outdoors and his booming voice reverberated inside the chapel.
But tragedy struck the Alfords. Their 3-year-old daughter died in December 1856 and was the first person buried in the new cemetery.
Landy Alford eventually left Suisun Valley for the San Joaquin Valley as civilization in Solano County grew and game became more scarce, Fraser wrote.
Rockville Chapel faced challenges in the coming years, as well. A split arose in the congregation during the Civil War between those who favored the North and those who favored the South.
“The Civil War wounds healed slowly and the cemetery grew faster than the congregation,” historian Wood Young wrote.
Rockville Chapel fell into disrepair as the decades passed and in 1929 the Methodist Episcopal Church South deeded it to the Rockville Cemetery District. By 1939, the building had broken stain-glass windows, a rotted floor, a leaky roofs and bats.
Rosa Lee Baldwin, descended from a pioneer family, wrote a letter to the Solano Republican newspaper in 1939 that helped spur interest in restoring the chapel.
“Would we not point with pride to that little stone church in the valley if it were restored and showed some signs of friendly occupancy and worship?” Baldwin wrote.
The New Deal gave new life to the Rockville Chapel. Its WPA program led to restoration work beginning in March 1940 and being finished two months later.
In 1962, the Solano Historical Society decided to seek state landmark status for the chapel. The drive succeeded in October of that year.
“It’s historical value is absolutely incredible to this community and California,” Van Putten said.
Reach Barry Eberling at 427-6929, or firstname.lastname@example.org.