The house that John built
The road to John and Annie Bidwell’s success here was a long one, and it started about 1,400 miles from Chico. A young schoolteacher in Missouri, Bidwell was the victim of a claim jumper and found himself with no roots and no home in the town where he had lived. A French man by the name of Roubideaux told Bidwell about a promising, paradisiacal land with “perennial springs” and “countless thousands of wild horses and cattle.” That land turned out to be right here.
In 1841, Bidwell was a member of the first wagon train of white settlers to cross the Sierra Nevada and settle in California. He resided first in the Sacramento area, where he was pioneer settler John Sutter’s right-hand
man. When gold was found in 1848, he quickly made claims along the Feather River, where he made a fortune in a very short time. But Bidwell was a farmer at heart, so he used his new wealth to purchase a Mexican land grant, Rancho Arroyo Chico, in this area. His explorations had told him, correctly, that the site—between two creeks and above the Sacramento River’s floodplain—was an idea place for a new town.
The first house he built on the land was a modest, two-story adobe house. There was a tavern, small general store and several rooms he rented out on the lower floor. Elected to Congress, he met his wife, Annie Ellicott Kennedy, in Washington, D.C., in 1865 and married her there three years later. An avowed teetotaler, she convinced him to give up smoking and drinking, and when he did he agreed to close the tavern in his house.
The Bidwells finished work on their new home in the same year they were married. Back then, the mansion was modern by current standards—it had running water, flushing toilets, fans, an air-circulation system and gas/electric lighting.
But the luxury did not come cheap. Bidwell paid $56,000 to build the Italianate Victorian home, a considerable amount for those times. With 26 rooms, the mansion had plenty of space for all the visitors the Bidwells welcomed to the peaceful haven.
Among them were such important people as John Muir, William Tecumseh Sherman, the women’s suffrage leader Susan B. Anthony (Annie Bidwell was a big supporter of the cause), and President Rutherford B. Hayes. Portraits of the many visitors to the mansion hang in its entryway, along with a life-sized portrait of John Bidwell that his wife commissioned three years after he died in 1900. According to a tour guide, the portrait is one of the things most marveled at by tourists. In it, Bidwell’s eyes seem to follow guests wherever they roam in his home.
Unlike many early American settlers, John Bidwell treated the Native Americans who resided on his land with relative liberality. He paid the 200-300 people of the Mechoopda Maidu tribe to stay and work on his farm. Today you can visit the room where Annie taught the Native American women to sew clothes like hers, which they admired so much. In return, they let Annie teach their children to read and write English. Eventually, the Bidwells, who had no children of their own, adopted all the Mechoopda Maidu children so they could attend American schools.
Although the Bidwells enjoyed many luxuries for their time, John never forsook his first love: farming. He won an award for the best wheat in the world at a world fair in Paris and was a leader among California farmers, serving as president of the Grange, among many other important roles.
And it was John Bidwell who donated the land on which the Chico State Normal School, now Chico State University, was built.
The Bidwells’ progressive civic legacy has sustained Chico since its inception, and their benign influence is still felt strongly in the town’s commitment to the arts, education and the natural environment.