For the new owners of the Little Brown Church in Maxwelton Valley, part of the appeal of purchasing the historic church and its grounds was to have a venue for their own wedding.
Paul and Emily Grubb took a leap of faith during the COVID-19 pandemic when they moved from Portland, Oregon to South Whidbey to start Cascadia Meadows at the Little Brown Church. They had been dating for a handful of months when Paul’s great-uncle George Mills and his wife, Lila, called the relatives together and announced they were looking for someone in the family to purchase the historic church.
Paul’s great-great-grandparents John and Sarah Grubb and great-grandparents George and Effie Grubb were founders of the Little Brown Church, which was established in 1908. The distinct building at the corner of French and Maxwelton roads was built in 1910 with locally milled cedar that turned brown as it weathered, giving the church its name. The A-frame that people know the church for today was later added in the 1960s.
Paul grew up visiting Whidbey Island and has many fond childhood memories of exploring the church and the surrounding woods.
“We used to watch Star Wars in here every Christmas,” he said of the Little Brown Church. His family would sit in the choir loft and watch movies on a projector installed at the front of the church.
When he and Emily purchased the church during the pandemic, Paul saw its untapped potential as a wedding venue.
“I’ve always thought this would be an amazing outdoor wedding space, and I couldn’t believe the church never did it,” he said. “They used it as parking for very large events and for the Fourth of July parade.”
The couple lived in the basement of the Little Brown Church while they spruced up the grounds with gardens, native plants, berms and arbors milled from fallen trees. They married in 2021 at the venue, which is now called Cascadia Meadows at the Little Brown Church.
“It’s been a lot of work to bring it back to green,” Paul said. “We’re trying not to use pesticides or herbicides, so we’re doing a lot of manual weeding.”
His ancestors who founded the Little Brown Church were Free Methodists from Kansas who came to Whidbey Island as missionaries. Free Methodists are characterized by their belief that churchgoers shouldn’t have to pay a tithe to sit in the front row. According to his family’s research, the Free Methodists of Whidbey Island had a tendency to be strict with one another. From reading journals and meeting minutes, Paul discovered that people who didn’t show up for Bible study became ostracized from the rest of the community, for example. Throughout the years he can track his relatives leaving the church. The congregation grew smaller and smaller, to the point where he recalls only a dozen worshippers in the 1970s and 1980s.
The Free Methodists left the Little Brown Church in the 1990s. The Free Methodist Church continued to own the property and rented it out to the Maxwelton Christian Fellowship, a non-denominational Christian group that hosted services in the building. The group brought in the church’s first female pastor who made the controversial decision to paint the church a different color.
“It was a sad day when the Little Brown Church in Maxwelton turned gray,” one person bemoaned in a “Letter to the Editor” that ran in the Nov. 29, 1994 issue of the South Whidbey Record.
George and Lila Mills purchased the historic structure in 2008 from the Free Methodist Church. One of their first actions was to restore the Little Brown Church to its original color. During its 100th anniversary celebration, Paul, who was then a Catholic priest, preached in the church during a re-dedication service.
To this day, the church remains unaffiliated with any one religion and hasn’t had an active congregation or a service for years. But that doesn’t stop people from driving into the parking lot on Sunday and tugging on the doors.
“It’s just so quaint and so cute and so historic and it’s a landmark of the valley that it’s really hard for people to think about it as a wedding venue, and to give up the idea of it as a congregation,” Paul said.
The lush, peaceful grounds are sheltered by 50 mature Douglas firs on the property.
“We have lots of people tour this and they say it feels like a natural cathedral, with all the big trees,” Emily said.
There’s no shortage of local wildlife, either.
“You’re guaranteed, if you have your wedding here, to have mating bald eagles swooping overhead,” Paul said. “Isn’t that amazing?”
This time of year, pastel purple foxgloves are in bloom at Cascadia Meadows. Come August, there will be sunflowers, just in time for a wedding.
Yard games, a sound system, full kitchen facilities and a generator are all included with the venue rental.
Couples tying the knot can choose to host a farm animal or two during cocktail hour thanks to an enclosure the Grubbs built. They can also stay in the parson’s cottage, a cozy house that provides a location to get ready for the big day.
And if an indoor setting is preferred or needed in case of adverse weather, the Little Brown Church seats about 150 people.
“Our goal is to have it be as relaxing as possible, so we never book more than one event for the weekend,” Emily said. “We allow people to come a day or two ahead of time to get their tent set up and move things on the property.”
Though they aren’t wedding planners, the couple can provide recommendations on vendors and fulfill unique requests. Emily is a quilter and can even make a blanket with the couple’s colors.