Chico in 3-D

The college and town are much more vivid when viewed historically

TEE FORMATION <br>The Chico State Normal School football team of 1902-02 practices in this 1903 photo. The school’s main building (background) burned down in 1927 and was replaced by today’s Kendall Hall.

The Chico State Normal School football team of 1902-02 practices in this 1903 photo. The school’s main building (background) burned down in 1927 and was replaced by today’s Kendall Hall.

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In the evening of Aug. 12, 1927, 17-year-old Ted Meriam had just gotten home from his job as an errand boy and general helper at Oser’s department store in downtown Chico (pop. 7,000, give or take a few souls), when he heard the large bell at the firehouse on Main Street between Fourth and Fifth begin sounding. It rang twice, then five times, the signal calling volunteers to a fire on the Chico Normal School campus.

His home was on Rio Chico Way, just west of the campus. He ran back the way he’d come 15 minutes earlier, along First Street, to the campus, where he found the entire main normal school building in flames. “It was a tragic but spectacular sight,” he wrote many years later, in 1990. In the end, all that remained of the once-impressive brick building was its shell.

Out of crisis comes opportunity, however. The state Legislature soon appropriated funding to build a new, larger campus. Within two years the new administration building, today’s Kendall Hall, was up and in use on the very site of the old main school building, and not long after that the other buildings forming the beautiful redbrick heart of campus, today’s Laxson Auditorium and Trinity Hall, also were built.

“In retrospect,” Meriam wrote, “the fire was in its way a blessing, for it provided the opportunity to plan and to build a fine new campus.”

Meriam, who died in 2001 at the age of 91, went on to have a distinguished career, not only as the long-time president of Oser’s, but also as mayor of Chico and a founding trustee of the California State University system. The Meriam Library on campus is named after him.

Ted Meriam loved Chico, and he worked hard to keep its sense of history alive. If he were around today, he’d want new students to know, as they walk about campus and bicycle around town, that the present is just another moment in the town’s colorful history, and that being aware of that history will enrich any student’s life in Chico.

HOOP DREAMS<br>The normal school girls’ basketball team circa 1890 is photographed at the Chico train depot before leaving for a game in Reno.

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Did you know, for example, that the building housing the Tres Hombres restaurant, at First and Broadway streets, was once the site of Chico founder Gen. John Bidwell’s general store, and that it was built in 1861?

Or that, from 1925-35, Bidwell Mansion served as a dormitory for Chico State Teachers College students, first women, then men? They were quartered three to a room but usually slept outside, on the veranda, using the rooms for studying and dressing, according to the late local historian and educator Joe McGie. Later the mansion, then known as Bidwell Hall, housed the Art and Home Economics departments.

The university is now 115 years old, making it one of the oldest public colleges in the state, and its history is inextricably entwined with Chico’s, beginning with the fact that it is located on land that was once part of Bidwell’s huge rancho. Not only is Bidwell Mansion right across the creek from the campus, but the beautiful brick church he and his wife Annie attended, Bidwell Memorial Presbyterian Church, is immediately next door to Ayres Hall, home of the Art Department.

It’s important to know that, by the standards of their time, the Bidwells were progressive, even enlightened people. Their legacy—of tolerance, diligence, civic responsibility and support for education and the arts—set a tone in Chico that has lasted to this day and has helped the town weather periods of economic depression and racial conflict that threatened to tear it apart.

One need only try to imagine the town without the university, which John Bidwell was instrumental in bringing to Chico, to understand his contribution. Because of it, the town is wealthier, better educated, more diverse and more culturally sophisticated than comparable Central Valley towns that lack such an institution. Think Visalia, for example, or Merced or Yuba City.

To learn more about the Bidwells and the history of Chico and Butte County, the best place to start is the Visitors Center at Bidwell Mansion. It provides a good introduction to local history, and you’ll be glad you went. Take a tour of the mansion, too. You’ll get a sense of what life was like for the Bidwells and other Chicoans in the 19th century, and you’ll begin to see Chico and the university from a much more revealing perspective.

One of the stories most new Chico State students arrive here knowing, at least in part, is that the university once had an annual spring festivity known as Pioneer Week, and that a few years ago it was abolished.

POWER TO THE PARTY PEOPLE <br>High-spirited college hijinx or wanton and irresponsible destruction of property? The scene above was photographed near the corner of Fifth and Ivy streets during a night of out-of-control revels that led to the end of the university’s affiliation with Pioneer Days.

Photo By Mark Thalman

A fair amount of nostalgia continues to swirl about the event, as shown by the fact that, in an informal vote this year, Chicoans decided to change the name of the town’s annual spring parade, called A Celebration of People, to the Pioneer Day Parade.

Actually, the event began in May 1919 as Senior Day, designed to show off the campus to visiting high-school seniors. Over the years various “Old West” themes were added, including a variety show, election of a “Sheriff” and a “Little Nell” to preside over the festivities, and a “whiskerino” beard-growing contest. The name Pioneer Day first emerged in 1927.

For many years it remained a day-long event held on a Saturday, but gradually it began to get longer in duration, eventually becoming a week-long series of events complete with construction of a small village of history-themed buildings on the campus’ front lawn and a Pioneer Week Parade. As the university grew, so did Pioneer Week.

At such a scale, it tended to take over the lives of the students who were participating, most of whom were members of social fraternities. In addition to building the village, preparing skits for the talent show (called “Presents") and constructing a float for the parade, they had classes to attend and tests to take.

Making a difficult situation nearly impossible was the party spirit that dominated the week, with huge keggers of a thousand people or more that spilled out onto the streets and an ever-increasing infusion—some called it an onslaught—of out-of-towners looking for party action. As would happen with Halloween 15 years later, the event began to grow out of control.

Efforts to shorten the week—it was renamed Pioneer Days—to four or five days did little to lessen its impact on the community.

Then, in 1987, Playboy magazine dubbed Chico State the “No. 1 party school” in the country—as if it could measure such things—and, even worse, night-time street riots broke out in student neighborhoods.

The name was changed again, to Rancho Chico Days, but two years later riots once more broke out, and the university president at the time, Robin Wilson, did as he’d promised if such a thing happened again: He “took it out in the back yard and shot it.”

This, too, is part of Chico’s history. The next time you’re walking through the Fifth and Ivy student neighborhood just south of campus at night, imagine the streets filled with drunken, shouting revelers and a huge bonfire blazing in the middle of the intersection. No doubt it’s an indelible memory for the people who were there—those who were sober enough to remember it, anyway.

Since then Chico has worked hard to overcome its “party school” image, if only to enhance the value of its graduates’ diplomas. But it’s still a fun place to go to school, and you can make it even more fun by making the effort to see it through time, as a community with a rich history of which you, like the students who came before you, are an important part.