The Little Tree Church

The old oak did not survive

by Juanita Lovret
Reprinted courtesy of the Tustin News

The Little Tree Church, a replica of Hopewell Church near Columbia, Tenn., was built around a vintage oak tree that was probably planted by Sam Preble, who built a Victorian mansion on the property in the late 1 800s. The tree has died, but the church still stands in the parking lot of Jamestown Village

The little church in the middle of the Jamestown Village parking lot looks as if it has been part of Tustin for centuries, but it only dates back some 40 years.

The location on D Street (El Camino Real) between Main and Sixth was once an orchard with a magnificent Victorian home owned by George Preble, who came to Tustin in 1876. A builder as well as an orange grower, he built the Tustin Hotel, the Tustin Lemon Association packing house and Tustin High School in addition to his home.

In 1955 C.T. Gilbreath, a builder, bought the house, then known as the Franklin P. Crawford house. The property, which had shrunk to about two acres, included a well house and a barn, with two circa 1928 Nash automobiles in it, an orange grove and a few avocado trees.

The Gilbreath family moved into the house and lived there until 1960, when work began on Jamestown Village. The structure was offered free to anyone who would move it, but there were no takers and the house was demolished in October 1960. The mantle from the old house was given to Walter Knott for use at Knott’s Berry Farm. Some of the other interior items were salvaged for use in the shopping center (primarily in the shop which is now Rumors Salon).

Gilbreath managed to save many of the pine trees surrounding the house, working them into the shopping center’s landscaping, but he fretted over a large oak tree in the parking lot.

Writing in The Tustin News in 1968, he explained, “I felt that I should do something special around this oak tree. Flowers? Everybody plants flowers. A tree house? No, kids would get hurt. Then my thoughts drifted back to my childhood in Columbia, TN.”

As he reminisced, he recalled 1912 when he had gone with his grandmother by horse and buggy to Hopewell Church. The country church which she had attended from the time of the Civil War was about six miles outside Columbia. Those pleasant memories provided him with the solution for the oak tree

He designed and built a miniature of his grandmother’s church, only with the oak tree growing through the middle of it. The Little Tree Church with white clapboard siding, a red brick porch and shake roof still stands, but is no long sheltered by the oak tree.A combination of old age and disease killed it a number of years ago.

Today the tiny church stands alone in the parking lot with its cupola reaching into the sky. The green trim encasing the stained glass windows is fresh and the interior with its cathedral ceiling, knotty pine walls and four small pews appears to be waiting for a wedding or christening party to arrive and light the candles in the sconces. A small white organ stands ready as does the pulpit made from a large rock elevated on a brick platform.

Gilbreath passed away in 1987, followed by his wife, Charlie May, in 2004

The center is still owned and managed by the Gilbreath Family. Gerda Brucks of Gerda’s Antiques is custodian of the key and shows the Little Tree Church to those who are curious or interested in renting it. Meanwhile, it waits patiently, surrounded by cars.



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