Discovering the past
Look closely and you’ll see old Chico behind the city’s modern face
Chico hasn’t always been like this.
If you’re new to town, you might not realize at first that the Chico you’re experiencing today is built on the Chicos of 1950 and 1934 and 1872. But if you look closely, you can catch glimpses of those old Chicos.
Guests of the Hotel Diamond in downtown Chico, for instance, may notice that it contains little windows into the past, in the form of places where the building’s original brick walls are visible—along the stairway, for example, and in the bar. When owner Wayne Cook remodeled the building, he purposely saved those walls so guests could enjoy the reminder that the present is built on the past.
In Chico, there are a lot of such windows into the past. You don’t have to go to a museum to learn about local history.
If you’re having coffee at the downtown Starbucks, for example, you’ll notice that there are five large historical photos on one of the brick walls. They’re pictures of the building taken shortly after it was constructed, in 1884, and of Lee Pharmacy, which occupied that site for more than a century. The walls themselves were part of the original building.
Chico has a rich history dating back more than 160 years, to 1850, when pioneer settler John Bidwell used money he’d earned mining for gold on the Feather River to buy a 22,000-acre spread called Rancho del Arroyo Chico on the banks of what we now call Big Chico Creek. Remnants of that history are visible throughout Chico, but especially downtown and in the older neighborhoods.
Prior to European-Americans’ arrival, Native Americans had resided here for thousands of years. They lived lightly on the earth and left few remnants, but it’s known there were numerous villages along Big Chico Creek. Chico still has a small but thriving community of Mechoopda, a branch of the Maidu tribe that inhabited much of the Sacramento Valley and lower foothills.
In Bidwell’s time the Mechoopda’s rancheria was on his land, and to this day Chico State students by the thousands regularly walk past their little cemetery across from the campus on West Sacramento Avenue just east of Cedar.
You won’t have to go looking for evidence of Chico’s history, but if you decide you’d like to enrich your stay here by learning more about its past, here are some places that can help you.
Bidwell Mansion and Visitor Center: If you’re going make just one trip into Chico’s past, this should be it—but hurry, because as of this writing the mansion, a state historic park, is slated to be closed in 2012 as a cost-cutting measure. The mansion is much as it was when Bidwell and his wife, Annie, lived there following its construction in 1868. Take a tour to learn about their lives and the operations of the household. (Fun factoid: It was the first house in far Northern California to have indoor plumbing.) Then head over to the Visitor Center for more information about the Bidwells and early Chico. Tours cost $3 for children ages 5-17, $6 for adults. Open Mon.-Weds., noon-5 p.m., Sat. and Sun. 11 a.m.-5 p.m.
Chico Museum: Housed in the former Carnegie Library building at Second and Salem streets in downtown Chico, the museum has rotating exhibits (currently “Amazing Grains: the Story of Rice in California and Beyond”) as well as a permanent historical exhibit, “Chico Timeline 1830–2000,” filled with photos, portraits and artifacts evoking Chico’s diverse history. There’s also an “Agricultural History of the North Valley” that tells the tale of the valley, the people who made it their home, and its historical impact on agriculture in the region. Entry is $3 for adults, $2 for students and seniors, and free for kids 14 and younger. Open Wed.-Sun., noon-4 p.m.
Stansbury House: This stately Victorian at the corner of West Fifth and Salem streets downtown is a great example of late-19th-century Italianate architecture in Chico. Built by an early Chico doctor, Oscar Stansbury, and lived in for many years by his daughter, Angeline, an art teacher at Chico High School, it’s truly a trip back in time. Call 895-3848 for tours, and if you do take a tour, be sure to ask about the Chinese cook and his unfortunate demise.
Patrick Ranch: This is a beautifully preserved example of a 19th-century farm and ranch, including Glenwood, a huge and gorgeous Victorian farmhouse, just four miles south of Chico on the Midway. Like the Chico Museum, it’s operated by the Far West Heritage Association. It’s open Saturdays from the first weekend in April through the last weekend in October and for special events. Hours: 10 a.m.-2 p.m. Donation $2, children under 14 free when accompanied by an adult.
Chico Air Museum: Beginning with the story of Thaddeus Kerns, “Chico’s Boy Aviator,” who perished in the wreck of his homemade biplane in 1913 at age 19, Chico has a rich aviation history, including serving as a flight training base during World War II. This little museum located at the Chico Municipal Airport consists of an outdoor aircraft display as well as an indoor display of interesting and historic aviation artifacts. Open Thurs. 10 a.m.-2 p.m., Fri. 9 a.m.-5 p.m. and Sat. 8 a.m.-4 p.m.
Chico Cemetery: Cemeteries contain all kinds of stories, and Chico’s is no exception. Most of the town’s pioneer settlers, including the Bidwells, are buried in it, so just wandering through and reading the headstones is a history lesson by itself. You’ll notice when contagious diseases like diphtheria laid waste to the town, wiping out whole families in a matter of months. You’ll notice how many young children died, how many young men died in war, and how many old people died in their beds after living long and full lives. 881 Mangrove Ave.
Chico State University timeline: Located in Kendall Hall, in the hallway outside President Paul Zingg’s office, this wall exhibit offers a quick but thorough history of the university in timeline form, with photos. In no more than 15 minutes, you can greatly expand your understanding of the school’s past and its role in the community. Zingg is a historian by training and encourages students to be mindful of the past so as to proceed into the future wisely.
There are a few other resources that the historically intrepid among you can make good use of.
I recommend two books about the Bidwells. One is John Bidwell & California: The Life and Writings of a Pioneer 1841-1900 (Arthur H. Clark, 2004), by two Chico State history professors, Michael Magliari and the late Michael Gillis. This is a scholarly but pleasantly readable study that focuses on Bidwell’s remarkable career as a farmer, horticulturalist, Bear Flag revolutionary, and politician, and convincingly demonstrates why he was the most significant pre-Gold Rush pioneer in Northern California.
The second is Annie Kennedy Bidwell: An Intimate History, by the late local historian Lois McDonald (Stansbury Publishing, 2004). This lovely book takes us inside the Bidwells’ lives and those of their family members, focusing on their marriage, their relationship with the larger Chico community, and Annie’s passionate suffrage and religious beliefs. One shocking scoop: That as a young bachelor in Chico, Bidwell had two children by Mechoopda women, something confessed to Annie before they married.
If you have a specific area of Northeastern California history you want to explore, the best resource is the Special Collections archive in the university’s Meriam Library. It contains more than 18,000 photos, as well as myriad documents, manuscripts and other historical material.
There are several virtual archives on Special Collections’ website, including a fascinating exhibit about the veterans’ village that sprang up on campus following World War II.
Finally, if you are ever feeling bombarded by modernity and want to step into something comfortingly old, just pay a visit to Collier Hardware or Northern Star Mills downtown. Both have been in business for more than a century, and they’ve hung onto their oldness with pride and pleasure.