Chico’s urban legends

‘But I know a guy who knew a guy…’

GREAT WALLS OF CHICO Legend has it that Chinese laborers build the rock walls lining land in parts of Chico, but that’s not true. The walls, like these along Humboldt Road, were built by immigrants from the Portuguese Azores, historians say.

GREAT WALLS OF CHICO Legend has it that Chinese laborers build the rock walls lining land in parts of Chico, but that’s not true. The walls, like these along Humboldt Road, were built by immigrants from the Portuguese Azores, historians say.

photo by Tom Angel

No one’s sure how they start, these urban legends. Someone tells you someone they “know"—say, the friend of a friend’s sister—coughed up $250 for a cookie recipe. Or, they have a buddy who worked in the hospital where Mikey the Life cereal boy died after mixing Pop Rocks and Coca-Cola, or when actor Richard Gere was rushed to the emergency room with a certain delicate personal problem involving a wayward gerbil. Soon, the tale has reached legendary proportions.

Chico, naturally, has a few urban legends of its own. To hear some people tell it, underground downtown is teeming with tunnels, college students are quaffing down enough beer to keep Budweiser in business and the city government is just waiting for someone to set off a nuclear bomb so it can fine him $500.

An urban legend spreads spontaneously and mysteriously and takes on varying forms, according to the FAQ page at alt.folklore.urban. The legend contains elements of humor or horror, and there’s often a moral to the story, punishing a character for some breach of society’s rules. An urban legend doesn’t even have to be false. In fact, many have their start in a grain of truth.

Barbara Mikkelson, who, with her husband, David, runs the popular urban-legends Web site at from the San Fernando Valley, said there are elements in common with any such tale.

“Generally, you have to look for a story that is going to strike a spark with the listener,” she said, and tells someone something that “resonates with their own beliefs.”

She said the stories that have emerged since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks—like people should stay out of shopping malls on a particular day, or Middle Easterners were buying scary amounts of candy at Costco—are just a new manifestation of the basic components that make up any urban legend.

“A lot of the emotions that are being raised right now have fear as a base,” Mikkelson said. “Putting stuff into words is a way to come to terms with it.”

Most popular are the stories that play upon people’s basic moral outlook or sense of justice—a punishment and reward system that reveals the people who break the rules. “If you do something bad with the dog and peanut butter, everyone will find out,” Mikkelson offered as an example.

“You’ll pass along the stories you agree with,” she said, until the only ones left in circulation are those that reflect the values society in general believes in. What interests Mikkelson is “the basic emotions and fears and concerns that the stories give voice to. It’s more what they say about us.”

The stories spread by “word of mouth. The desire to gossip is far from new.” The Internet just increases the ability to spread the word faster and wider. “Often they just start very innocently,” Mikkelson said. “They propagate because something in the rumor resonates with somebody.”

“Even in non-war times there’s always the desire to be the bellringer, the one who has the cool story,” she said.

Mikkelson has also found that it’s not just the uneducated or the gullible who believe the urban legends. “I don’t know anyone who hasn’t fallen for an urban legend or any basic rumors,” she said. “There’s no protection based on your education.”

That said, the News & Review has rounded up some of Chico’s most prevalent urban legends and even tacked on a few more obscure ones that we came across. Were you fooled? Don’t feel badly. We’ve fallen for a few of them ourselves.

Someone really didn’t do their math when they started this one, and it’s one we’ve heard repeated umpteen times around town.

This myth is apparently intended to perpetuate the idea that Chico State University students are hardcore partiers, which translates to drinking a lot of booze.

“It’s not true,” said Steve Mosher, general sales manager of Stash Distributing in Chico, who doesn’t like talk of inflated alcohol consumption. “I can guarantee there’s no more beer sold here than anywhere else.”

Duh. Budweiser brewed 7.3 million barrels last year. Five percent of that is 375,000 barrels, an impossibly obscene amount of brew for a year’s worth of even the most raging Chico keggers.

“Our surveys say, on average, our students do drink more than other students,” acknowledged Joe Wills, director of public affairs for Chico State. But he said students tend to inflate what they report based on what they think their peers are doing. The university is on a grant-funded campaign to counter the image.

Read on…Everyone but everyone is aware that Chico State has among its honors the title of the nation’s No. 1 party school, bestowed upon it in 1987 by Playboy magazine and repeated by the likes of MTV until outsiders converged upon the town and a riot took over Pioneer Days.

Word spreads and sticks, and the label is a cross Chico State has to bear. President Manuel Esteban just grins and says his students are developing social skills that will win them jobs later.

“The methods they have to test these things are just absurd,” Wills said. “It’s hard to believe there’s one school and we’re it.”

Such rankings are not the most scientific of studies; they’re based on things like whose buddy got laid where 10 years ago. According to, Playboy came up with its list after staff members interviewed “campus club leaders, dorm rush chairmen, fraternity presidents and other campus social studs at more than 250 schools nationwide.” (For the record, the No. 2 slot went to the University of Miami at Coral Gables.)

Last month, Chico placed a paltry No. 9 on‘s list. Princeton Review hasn’t given us a nod in years.

“The organizations that have ranked party schools haven’t been paid much attention to us lately,” Wills said.

Most urban legends have variations and follow-ups tacked on, and in this case Val Montague, who owns Zot’s and follows Chico doings, passed along the story that after the riots, then-Chico State President Robin Wilson registered “Pioneer Days” as a trademark so it could never be used again.The harsh penalty for picking a pretty posy from the Petersen Rose Garden has been told to freshman and visitors on campus tours and repeated to said students’ parents when they visit until the belief reached mythical proportions. It’s to the point where some of us quiver nervously just walking through the garden. The News & Review has even perpetuated the falsehood in its Goin’ Chico issue and Visitor’s Guide.

THIS BUD’S FOR CHICO It’s pretty obvious that little old Chico can’t be responsible for 5 percent of Budweiser’s sales nationwide, but still the urban legend prevails. Delivery drivers Brian Kaps, right, and Kelly Abbott, drop off a load on Third Street.

photo by Tom Angel

Here’s our correction.

“It’s not $1,000. You’re not supposed to pick roses, though,” said Wills, the spokesman. He says the fine is actually $50 for either picking or cutting one of the flowers.

Mikkelson, of the urban legends Web site, said variations of this one exist in many communities, with the hand of justice crashing down “if you pick the important flower, usually the state flower.” In Ontario, Canada, it’s trillium. There are also plenty of schoolyard warnings against picking California’s golden poppies, but in reality they are not rare.

Colleges are a popular breeding ground for urban legends, like the idea that if your professor doesn’t show up for class after 15 minutes you can leave.

But the most popular myth of all is that when a college student’s roommate takes his own life, his or her loss will be soothed in the form of top-notch grades.

The legend was unmasked somewhat in 1998 when the panned Paramount movie Dead Man on Campus came out, in which students conspired to find a roommate to drive to suicide so they could collect on the good grades.

Wills, the Chico State spokesman, worked at the University of the Pacific when the movie was being filmed there and said the production folks were really hush-hush about the plot and tried to keep students and the media away from the “set.”

The grades-for-suicide story reached such legendary proportions that even the prestigious Chronicle of Higher Education wrote an article to debunk it. The publication’s investigation found that, while one in 7,500 to 10,000 college students commits suicide each year, no college has a policy compensating surviving roommates in any way other than offering grief counseling or perhaps deferring some exams like they would in any emotionally trying situation. They did hear about someone’s tacky mom asking a college to cut her boy a break.This writer has gotten this one as a hot news tip many times, and many times there’s been nothing to it. Well… maybe “nothing” is too strong a word.

Wills, of Chico State, said, “Off and on for years there have been discussions, because Chico High is not new, and the university wants to expand.” But neither party is in the market for such a deal right now. “The city is having trouble adding a third high school, much less replacing Chico High. … The main point of it is, where would Chico High go?”

Chico Unified School District officials say that, while it’s nothing that would happen anytime soon, the idea is not so far-fetched.

“I imagine one of these days, it’s obvious,” said CUSD Trustee Steve O’Bryan. The high school is right next to the university, which is cramped for space and already uses some of Chico High’s sports fields.

School board President Scott Schofield said it was he who sparked the latest casual talks when the district was deciding where to build a new high school. “We talked with Chico State in the early goings,” he said, with the thought that perhaps the district could sell the university the school and “have them build us a high school somewhere else.”

“It wasn’t the right time or the right place,” he said. The rumor has been around for decades. “Fifteen or 20 years ago, it got pretty serious,” he added. “It opens up a lot of possibilities.”

The “fact” that there’s a $500 fine for anyone detonating a nuclear device here has turned up in numerous books (like Great Government Goofs) and Internet “dumb law” lists, making our fair city look mighty silly, the implication being that if a bomb were set off, no one would be left to enforce the fine.

This one really riles up Tim Bousquet, the muckraking editor of the Chico Examiner. “I always try to find out where it originated,” said Bousquet, who e-mails the offending taletellers and sets them straight.

The law, which is Section 9.60.030 of the city’s Municipal Code, makes reference to the threat of a nuclear war that would not be survivable and is thus “unacceptable” and states: “No person shall produce, test, maintain, or store within the city a nuclear weapon, component of a nuclear weapon, nuclear weapon delivery system, or component of a nuclear weapon delivery system.”

There’s nothing about exploding or fines, although $500 was the limit for any city infraction.

When city leaders at a public meeting brought up the ordinance, Roger Aylworth of the Enterprise-Record reported it—with an emphasis on potential detonation—and the newswire services picked it up.

Aylworth stands by his story. At the time, he said, the ordinance included the words “or use” in reference to what’s forbidden in the way of nuclear weapons. “Obviously, somebody decided to edit the foolishness out of it.”

Tom Lando, Chico’s city manager, said that after the ordinance was passed in 1983, “We got calls from all over the world, literally.” However, he said many of those were people who liked the idea of a nuclear-free zone as a way to discourage companies or governments from designing or producing nuclear waste or allowing it to travel through town.

Out-of-towners taking the law out of context miffs him a bit, Lando admits, depending on his mood. “When I see it on a joke list, I just think, ‘How many others on this list have no basis?'”

And people making fun of the law miss its point, Bousquet wrote: “The law is clearly intended as a statement against the nuclear-arms industry and may be more relevant given the presence of a university within our city. It was the first of many such ordinances passed around the country and may or may not have affected the national discourse, but hey, it was worth the effort."Among the tales of places rumored to be haunted in Chico, perhaps the most oft-repeated story in downtown circles is that of the Senator Theater. The tale comes in different forms, but the ones we’ve heard most often are that the ghost is that of a Native American child and that two people have committed suicide in the theater. But experiences vary.

Matt Loomis, a Chico artist who works at Tower Records downtown, was painting a mural in a Senator office alone at night two years ago and had an experience that left him more than a little shaken up.

He said that cars driving by cast strange reflections inside the building, but this was more than that. “Light was doing weird things, but light always does weird things there,” he said. “I heard that the Senator was haunted, but I just didn’t believe anybody.”

“I heard all these footsteps and whistling,” said Loomis, who figured someone had forgotten something in the building and came back for it. “I went out there, and I didn’t see anybody.” He heard the footsteps, which were not at all hurried, and went down to the lobby.

“By this time I’m getting pretty freaked out,” he said. As he walked back to the second floor he saw, in clear detail, a woman from the legs down, with the legs crossed and her hands resting on her knee as she sat on one of the theater’s benches.

BEAUCOUP BUCKS BOUQUET Kelly Walker, a nursing senior at Chico State University, pretends (key word: <i>pretends</i>) to cut one of the flowers in the Petersen Rose Garden. Although many believe there’s a $1,000 fine for such thievery, Walker says she knows that’s not true.

photo by Tom Angel

“I’m not painting there by myself anymore,” Loomis concluded.

DNA, who is running the theater as a performance venue, said, “I come here every night and I say, ‘Bring it on.’ I walk around with a camera all the time.”

Reportedly, a custodian quit after creepy nighttime hauntings. One man felt a hand on his shoulder and tiles flew around. Another guy saw a mop bucket floating in the air, DNA related. Another time, people were on stage and felt a “huge presence” just before the counterbalance moved mysteriously.Chico’s Chinese took an underground route from their homes and around downtown, sometimes stopping at opium dens they set up there—or so every Chico youngster grew up believing.

“I don’t know where that ever got started,” said Chico historian John Nopel.

Chico’s Chinatown circa 1865 wasn’t even in the heart of downtown; it was more in the area of Flume Street between East Fifth and East Sixth, several blocks over. More than 500 Chinese lived in Chico at that time.

Michele Shover, a political-science professor at Chico State, said there was a basement on Orange Street that served as a “safe house” for the Chinese, but as for the rest of the legend, “it just survives because people like to think that it’s true.”

Clif Sellers, the city of Chico’s community development director, concurred that there’s no truth to the tunnel theory, although it sounds “cool.”

“I remember in high school there being that rumor,” said the Chico native. He suspects the rumor developed in part because “there are a number of buildings downtown that are interconnected in the basements,” dating to when more businesses were under common ownership. But in the years since then, the city and others have done a lot of work on the roads and buildings, and “no one’s fallen into a giant tunnel yet,” Sellers said.

Jerry Brayton, who owns Brayton’s Hallmark on Main Street, said he’s heard the story since he was a little boy and his parents owned a shop downtown. The interconnected basements, and the coal shuttles that lent access to the lower levels, lent credence to the talk. A small part of the downtown area used to be 10 feet lower than it is today.

Nopel said the shops near First and Broadway—Tres Hombres and so on—are the only places that still have the interconnected basements.

Mikkelson, the urban-legends expert, says this is the type of urban legend that seems harmless on its face, but, if you think about it, it subtly reinforces racist stereotypes. “It sort of says [the Chinese] are sneaky; they’re underhanded,” she said. “Even the ones that are mostly harmless, they generally foster some belief.”

Stacks of lava rocks line fields in several areas of Chico, and the conventional wisdom is that Chinese laborers built them in the 1800s.

The story of the walls is recounted in several local tourist-oriented publications, and in fact this is the legend that Chicoans we chatted with clung to most tightly, saying they were positive it was true.

Nopel, who played around the walls when he was a boy, sounded annoyed at the degree to which the false history of the walls has been perpetuated.

“The Chinese didn’t do it,” Nopel said.

He said the true wall-builders were the Azores Portuguese, who were brought to Chico more than 100 years ago by families who owned much of the land here at that time—for example, the Bruces, for whom Bruce Road in southeast Chico is named.

Nopel said that because relatively few people owned the land at the time, they put up the walls as property boundary lines and to get the rocks out of the fields so grass would grow for cattle to graze upon. There are walls near Bruce and Humboldt roads and also north of town off Keefer Road and along Cohasset.

Although ranchers at the time hired some Chinese in Butte County to clear fields of rocks, Nopel said, “it’s entirely wrong to say that the Chinese built them.”

He added that they are well built and considered historic. “I would certainly do all I could to preserve them.”

Shover, the professor, said that the Chinese “were the major labor force in this general area in the 19th century, so later people just assumed they built those, too. They did everything else."Hey, hey, hey…

“That’s not totally a legend. There’s some truth to that,” revealed Steve Harrison, marketing and sales director for Chico’s famous brewery.

“At one time he expressed an interest,” he said. The comedian’s business manager called to see if owner Ken Grossman had any desire to sell, and of course he didn’t.

Harrison doesn’t believe Cosby even visited the brewery in person. “I think they were just looking for investments."Around 1922, Chicoans indeed reported instances of large, smooth stones raining down from the sky—an example of what is called a Fortean phenomenon. The falling rocks were centered on a warehouse near the train depot at Fifth and Orange streets. Several San Francisco papers and The New York Times picked up the story, and years later excerpts were recounted on the Web site (which itself speculates that the phenomenon could be evidence of “new lands” in the sky)

Some reports said the rocks were warm; others that they were oval-shaped. Some scientists pronounced them to be “meteoric material"; others said that they showed signs of cementation, so could not be otherworldly.

John Nopel, the Chico historian, said, “They never did figure out what caused that.” A man did write a letter confessing he used a catapult to launch the rocks and was going to stop in light of the hiring of airplanes to search for clues.

“They even hired men to go down in that warehouse all night to see if they could figure out where those rocks were coming from,” Nopel said. “All the merchants downtown began to put boards over the store windows because they thought the rocks were going to start falling in downtown.”

As for the fish story, it was reported in The New York Times in 1878 that the Chico Record had reported that enough small fishes fell from the sky, across several acres, to cover the roof of a store.

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