A history of ‘narrow escapes’

For more than a century, Chicoans have rescued Bidwell Mansion from disuse, deterioration and even shutdown

About the authors:
David Nopel (left) and David Veith have local history in their veins. Veith, a former journalist, is the son of the late Lois McDonald, a noted local historian and author of a biography of Annie Bidwell. He recently published his second novel, Whose Woods These Are. Nopel, who with his wife owns a child-care facility, is a descendant of pioneer families and the son of the late John Nopel, an educator and extraordinary collector of local historical artifacts. On Feb. 6 Arcadia Press is releasing his photographic history, The Humboldt Wagon Road, coauthored with Marti Leicester.

At 12:30 on a peaceful April afternoon in 1895 a violent explosion rocked the north bank of Big Chico Creek. A storage tank filled with gas used for “illuminating purposes” had blown up, just a few feet from the elegant mansion of Gen. and Mrs. John Bidwell. A worker named Charles Cunningham, severely burned about the head and shoulders, sounded the alarm.

People in the area formed a bucket brigade. A second tank exploded, destroying an outbuilding. Three times the mansion itself caught fire, but each time the flames were put out, and the Chico Fire Department finished dousing the blaze.

“A NARROW ESCAPE,” trumpeted the headline in the Oroville Weekly Mercury, “for General Bidwell’s Beautiful Chico Mansion.” The loss was placed at $2,000.

Since that two-alarm fire, Bidwell Mansion’s fascinating history has included several more “narrow escapes.” What is remarkable is how, each time, the citizens of Chico, individually and through organized groups like the Bidwell Mansion Association, the Chico Women’s Club, the Rotary Club, Las Se–oras and many others, have formed “bucket brigades” of their own to protect, preserve and restore the mansion.

Who remembers Charles Cunningham today? Or forward-thinking Chico State Teachers College President Charles Osenbaugh in the 1920s? Local farmer John Wannop in the 1950s? Frank Bidwell Durkee and the long effort to transform the mansion from college facility to state monument? Or the founders of the Bidwell Mansion Restoration Association, formed in 1956 with the stated goal of “restoring and preserving” the great house on The Esplanade?

Without the above local citizens, or countless other Chicoans over the last 100 years, Bidwell Mansion might not exist today.

“It is not possible to list all of the good things that have been done or name all the wonderful people involved in serving Bidwell Mansion, the magnificent jewel of the California park system,” said Chico historian John Nopel in 2005.

John Bidwell borrowed heavily to keep Rancho Chico operating, using his land as collateral. After his death in 1900, his widow Annie relinquished the property to retire the debts, except for the mansion and a few surrounding acres. Childless, she bequeathed the mansion to the national Presbyterian Church, to be used as a coeducational Christian-oriented school.

Annie died in 1918. Meeting in faraway Indiana, the church determined that to build a school in Chico was “not feasible.” According to Frank Durkee, writing in 1968, “their official resolution clearly indicated the possibility of disposition of the mansion on the open market.” And, indeed, local real-estate firms soon began envisioning “The Private Grounds of the Bidwell Mansion, Sub-Divided Into 125 Beautiful Lots.”

Into the breach rode college President Osenbaugh. “Long before the State Legislature was willing to finance college dormitories,” Durkee writes, “Osenbaugh had looked upon the mansion as such a possibility.”

On May 1, 1922, Osenbaugh and five other men, including Dr. Dan Moulton and Diamond Match executive William Dean, purchased Bidwell Mansion and the surrounding 10.219 acres from the Presbyterian Church for $10,000.

“It is generally understood,” writes Durkee, “that a prior understanding had been reached with the state Department of Education.” Hence, in August 1923, the six Chico citizens conveyed the mansion and grounds to the state of California (for $25,000) to become part of Chico State Teachers College.

Osenbaugh’s vision came true, and just in time.

The next chapter of the mansion’s saga was recorded by historian Martha Slade. “For four years after Annie’s death the great house stood brooding and silent,” Slade writes in the winter 1983 issue of the Butte County Historical Society’s Diggin’s magazine. “But now [1922] it was silent no more … echoing with the sound of youthful female voices.”

Only know photo of Bidwell Mansion under construction in 1868. Never before published.

Photo courtesy of Lee Laney

The “Bidwell Hall girls” were a spirited bunch, 20 to 40 in number, sending face powder drifting down the stairwell onto the heads of unsuspecting boys waiting for their dates on the bench below, sometimes sliding down the banisters themselves. “The outdoor balconies were converted to bedrooms,” writes Slade, “complete with privacy curtains that couldn’t keep out the residue from almond smudge pots” in the nearby orchards.

Successive classes of “girls” occupied the mansion through 1932. But times changed and, Slade writes, “females wanted more freedom and moved to private apartments.”

John Nopel recalled the next period, from 1932 through 1934, when the Bidwells’ home became living quarters for male athletes. “They rolled a 16-pound shot-put down the stairs,” he said. “There was considerable wear and tear on the building.” Slade concurs: “I don’t think the place fared well.”

Eventually the mansion was converted to college classrooms. Slade attended classes there from 1935 through 1937. In 1946, Leonard Whitegon, a long-time Chico educator, attended art classes under the skylight of the third-floor “ballroom.” John Bidwell’s office was used by the head of the Home Economics Department. The first-floor library became a student social center, where John Nopel attended dances and played table tennis and cards.

Eventually, writes Durkee, “the mansion appeared to become less important as a college facility and its future more and more uncertain.” Once again, much of the stately home stood empty and forgotten.

Around 1950, concerned Chicoans began the movement to rescue the mansion again, this time by protecting it as a state park or monument. Durkee, born in 1893 and a Bidwell namesake, was a former secretary of the Chico Chamber of Commerce, later a journalist, then a lawyer and a state official. Working with Etta Chiapella, he backed Sen. Paul Byrne’s introduction of Senate Resolution 124, adopted May 21, 1953, resulting the following year in a joint report to the Legislature stating:

“The State Department of Education and the State Park Commission believe that the historical aspects of the Bidwell Mansion are unquestionable. As a cultural and historical monument of outstanding significance, it should be preserved, developed, used, and interpreted for all Californians to enjoy.”

However, the transfer was not to take place until the Department of Education agreed that the mansion “was no longer necessary for classroom purposes.” This left the project in bureaucratic limbo, while interested Chico citizens continued to urge that the transfer take place.

Enter Johnny Wannop. A childless widower, he approached Chico attorney Grayson Price with an unusual request. Out of respect for the Bidwells, he wanted to leave $3,000 to “the Bidwell Mansion.”

Price explained that money could not be willed to an inanimate object, but he also thought of a solution. As John Nopel writes: “Price gathered a group of local citizens together to form an organization to receive Wannop’s gift.” On April 19, 1956, articles of incorporation were filed under the name of the Bidwell Mansion Restoration Association.

First board members included, among others, Ted Meriam, Glenn Kendall, W. L. Oser, Etta Chiapella and Helen S. Gage. Article 2 stated their purpose: “To restore Bidwell Mansion in the City of Chico, the home of the late General John Bidwell and Annie E.K. Bidwell, the founders and benefactors of the City of Chico, to a condition representative of the period during which they lived, both as to architecture and furnishing, as an historical monument for the benefit of the general public, and to therefore maintain the same for said purpose.”

Johnny Wannop passed away on March 15, 1957. His estate went into probate, so the first official meeting of the BMRA did not take place until Jan. 16, 1961. Price explained that Wannop’s bequest, on deposit in Lassen Savings and Loan, had grown to $3,263.40. But the pressing issue was the future of Bidwell Mansion. When, if ever, would it officially be designated as a state historical monument?

In the spring of 1963, the mansion had been retired from active use and was down to one occupant, the college president, who was using it as a temporary office during the remodeling of the Chico State Administration Building. On April 22, Glenn Kendall announced to the BMRA directors that he was moving out the next day. Things moved relatively quickly then.

On Jan. 20, 1964, the transfer from college to state was completed. Sen. Stan Pittman of Oroville secured $60,000 in funding for the first phase of restoration: a new roof, new porch decking, new wiring and alarm systems, and an interpretive center. In 1965 the mansion was wrapped like a package in huge air-tight tarpaulins and fumigated to destroy a wood-eating beetle. And at 2 p.m. on May 7, 1966, the state of California officially dedicated Bidwell Mansion as a state historic monument in ceremonies held on the southeast lawn.

A crowd estimated at 500 attended. President Kendall served as master of ceremonies, and Chico Mayor Harry McGowan gave the welcome. Dr. R. Coke Wood of the California Historical Landmark Commission presented the monument landmark plaque to Helen S. Gage, who represented the Bidwell Mansion Restoration Association. Ted Meriam—former Chico mayor, former president of the Butte County Historical Society, and a founding member of the BMRA—eulogized John Bidwell in an address titled “John Bidwell: He Was a Builder.”

Photo of Bidwell Hall residents from 1927 yearbook.

Photo courtesy of CSU, Chico Meriam Library Special Collections

Looking back from the perspective of August 2003, Ellen M. Clark, state historical interpretive specialist, could note that, “The [Bidwell Mansion Restoration] Association was the driving force behind the mansion’s transfer to the Department of Beaches and Parks in 1964.”

One goal had been reached, but more remained to be done, and Chico was ready. “An appeal was made for original and period artifacts to furnish the mansion,” Clark writes. “The restoration association, Bidwell family members, local citizens and [the Department of Beaches and Parks] provided the furnishings.”

The Bidwell Hall girls had already got it started. Sadly, their first discovery, a letter to Annie from Abraham Lincoln, had burned in the great fire at Chico Normal School in 1927. But they also found two bookcases that had belonged to Gen. Bidwell at a second-hand store on Sixth Street. Martha Slade writes: “How they raised enough money to buy them is forgotten, but they sit in the Bidwell Mansion library today.”

Under State Curator James Neider, contributions poured in. In 1964, the Bidwell Cup, awarded to John Bidwell for the best grain farm of 1862, was returned to the mansion from the State Library in Sacramento. In 1965, the Bidwells’ personal library, stored by the local Presbyterian Church, was returned to the mansion library.

In 1966, the famous full-length portrait of Gen. Bidwell, commissioned by Annie in 1903 and painted by Alice Reading, was returned from the State Capitol in Sacramento.

In 1970, three upstairs bedrooms were restored to the Bidwell era by the BMRA. The Chico Women’s Club made window drapes designed from old photographs.

A project in 1971-72 raised $3,200 to install rose-patterned carpet “in the style of the late 1800s” in the second-floor bedrooms. Leonard Whitegon remembers that mansion visitors purchased floor tiles for $1 and inscribed them with personal messages. “Like time capsules,” said Lee Shelton, chief ranger at the time. “In the distant future the carpets will have to be replaced, and your message will be disclosed.”

The project shortfall was made up by $400 given by the BMRA and Las Se–oras. Incidentally, the carpet is still wearing well.

Hester Patrick, BMRA president in 1972, accepted the original gavel of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, established in Chico in 1904 by Annie Bidwell. Authentic chandeliers originally owned by Bidwell attorney Franklin C. Lusk were donated by the Native Daughters of the Golden West. Rare copies of the 1907 book John Bidwell, Pioneer by Marcus Benjamin were made available by the BMRA for $50 tax-free donations.

In 1972 Bidwell’s sword from his role as brigadier general of the California State Militia during the Civil War was returned. A year later, a rare flour sack from Bidwell’s Mill was donated by the Chico Horticultural Society. The next year, Bidwell’s beloved “Daniel Webster” chair, given to him by Annie’s father and always displayed on a marble platform, was returned from the Daughters of the American Revolution Museum in Washington.

As restoration continued, the mansion began to serve an important additional purpose. Formed in 1973, the Bidwell Mansion Cooperating Association supported “interpretation and education,” including the Bidwell era from 1841 to 1918 and the pre-1930 era of the Mechoopda Maidu Native American people.

In 1979, the “Cooperating” and “Restoration” associations merged. “Now called the Bidwell Mansion Association,” Ellen Clark writes in 2003, “this organization continues to be actively involved in funding restoration and interpretation and education.”

In 1981, the BMA installed new flooring in the third-floor ballroom. In 1983, the footbridge over Chico Creek, swept away in the flood of 1937, was rebuilt by the Rotary Club with the participation of the BMA and presented to the State Parks Department and the city of Chico.

In 1989, the carriage shed was restored by the Native Daughters of the Golden West, along with the BMA and the considerable talents of Chico contractor Tim Simonds.

In 2000, again with the help of Simonds’ craftsmanship, the mansion kitchen restoration, authentic to 1868, was completed after a concerted effort of many years.

Fumigating the mansion in 1965 as part of Phase One Restoration.

Photo courtesy of CSU, Chico Meriam Library Special Collections and Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park

But the BMA’s (and Simonds’) most important achievement was the removal of the 1927 college annex and the restoration of the mansion’s north side to its original 1868 design.

In addition to funding special projects and school tours and acquiring many of the mansion’s 5,500 artifacts, the BMA has become the incubator for expanding and presenting knowledge of local history and culture. Take these examples:

In 1993, the BMA spearheaded the completion of the new and expanded Visitor Center.

That same year, the BMA funded research by Michael Gillis and Michael Magliari that led to the publication in 2003 of John Bidwell and California: The Life and Writings of a Pioneer, 1841-1900, now considered the authoritative recounting of Bidwell’s life and contributions.

From 1995 through 2001, the BMA funded public school music scholarships in the name of longtime mansion tour guide Maggie Gisslow, who was locally famous for leading wonderful tours despite being blind.

In 1996, the BMA financed the re-publication of George Mansfield’s 1918 History of Butte County and, five years later, generously funded the late historian Lois McDonald’s transcription of the John and Annie Bidwell diaries, along with their publication as a two-volume CD-ROM set, inspiring in turn McDonald’s 2004 book, Annie Kennedy Bidwell: An Intimate History.

In the last few years, the BMA has restored the 1903 Bidwell portrait, renovated the Visitors Center gift shop (rechristened as “The General’s Store"), installed a customized display for authentic Maidu Indian baskets, completed the restoration of the servants’ quarters, and repaired the photographs in the Visitor Center exhibit.

The current threat to the mansion is not unprecedented. As it was in 1895, the mansion is in dire jeopardy, but this time not from fire but from fiscal meltdown. Effective May 1, 2012, in response to the current state budget crisis, the California Department of Parks and Recreation intends to shut down the mansion completely. All the artifacts will be removed and stored in Sacramento. The mansion will be closed. The rooms will once again be empty and dark.

For now, the 1903 portrait of John Bidwell still hangs in the hallway. It is said, and a visitor can test it for himself, that the general’s eyes follow you as you pass by. What would Bidwell say now, to the citizens of the town he founded?

For many years Bidwell Mansion has been the scene of fiestas, banquets, ice-cream socials, fashion shows, fairs, concerts and, perhaps most important, field trips for school children learning California’s, and Chico’s, own history and culture. These events have been sponsored and presented by various Chico organizations, foremost among them the BMRA, the BMCA and the BMA, with the goal of raising money for “restoration, interpretation, and education.”

Will Chico respond again? Can we pull off yet another “narrow escape"? Leonard Whitegon, who spent 18 years on the BMA board, is heartened by the great community involvement he sees coming back now.

“I joined in the first place because of the people,” he says. “John Nopel, Ted Meriam, Martha Slade—these were outstanding individuals dedicated to preserving the Bidwells’ home.”

As a professional educator, Whitegon knows the value of the park as California history and as an educational tool for young people. As a high-school student, he participated in leadership conferences on the mansion’s front lawn, and he returned to the mansion for college classes.

“I’ve always been grateful to the Bidwells,” he says. “The general created the city of Chico and gave the land for Chico State. Annie gave us the magnificent Bidwell Park. The least we can do is honor their memory by preserving the historical treasure left to us.”

Michael Magliari, history professor at Chico State and BMA vice president, has compiled a progress report on efforts to keep Bidwell Mansion open. The BMA is continuing to fund school tours through the end of the 2011-12 academic year. A legislative-lobby campaign was launched, including a postcard drive in which Chico citizens participated. Negotiations with State Parks, Sacramento Valley Sector, have been going on since June. Public media and bumper-sticker campaigns are under way, and a contingent fund for public donations was opened on Oct. 10, 2011.

Two productive meetings were held at the Bidwell Mansion with state Sen. Doug LaMalfa and his staff, leading directly to a Town Hall meeting on Nov. 2, which in turn has led to the formation of a city-wide committee that has generated a groundswell of public interest and participation, with more to come.

“It would be the most terrible thing,” says Martha Slade, “to lose the mansion now.”

“We face a giant financial hurdle,” says Whitegon. “But our heritage is far too important to shutter, haul away, and lock in a dusty warehouse. Frankly, I’m afraid that if that happens, we’ll never get it back.”