Down home homage
Lifelong Chico native Marcia Myers Wilhite has assembled a picture book about the town she loves
Marcia Myers Wilhite’s Web site (www.hometownchico.com) claims that “Marcia has loved Chico as long as she can remember.” After reading the Chico native’s striking new coffee table book, My Hometown Chico, and sitting and talking with her at her favorite neighborhood coffee house, the Bean Scene, I have no trouble believing that statement.
Wilhite comes across at first meeting as an earnest and happy person and, increasingly over the course of the conversation, an ardent lover of her hometown.
She has put together a collection of photographs of Chico sights, both historical (thanks to 88-year-old local historian John Nopel, whom Wilhite has known since she was 3) and present-day, both color and black-and-white, “recreat[ing] the experience of a stroll from Chico’s beginnings to the still delightful town we know today” (My Hometown Chico, Introduction). The pictures are accompanied by her comments on what these sights meant and mean to the community and to the author herself. Wilhite says that making the book was “labor of love… a vision that [she] had.”
Right now, the reward for her vision is “10,000 pounds of books sitting in [her] garage,” which adds up to 3,000 books. After looking everywhere locally and in the United States, Wilhite had them printed in China to enable her to keep the price down to $32.95.
“I really did this for my kids. I wanted them to see Chico the way I did. Chico has changed considerably over the last 38 years. … I wanted to grab on to what’s good about Chico before it’s gone.” This is said without any kind of negativity, I might add. I sensed that Wilhite, a mother as well as a photographer and a writer, realizes that change is inevitable (taking that stroll through her book will confirm this), but she wants to give something back to the people and town she loves in the form of this evocative book.
And she’s hopeful: “Let’s hold on to what’s good about Chico.” Her book may help.
Photographs of bright-yellow sunflowers in a field, a little Hmong girl offering up a box of the reddest red strawberries at the Saturday Farmers’ Market, and a gorgeous color shot of Upper Bidwell Park’s Bear Hole (taken at “just the right time” by a barefoot Wilhite in spring) capture perfectly what’s good about Chico when the weather is warm. And Wilhite’s inclusion, in the historic-home section, of a photograph of Dick and Jean Meyer’s charming Tudor-style brick house with the immaculate and flowery yard on the corner of Ninth Street and Cypress is something that only a true Chicoan would know to include.
“Local Chicoans have always watched [Dick Meyer],” Wilhite explains, as he works outside in his yard, planting flowers (how many of us have adored his beautiful display of bright-red salvia?), trimming bushes, keeping his garden just so for those of us who drive and walk and cycle by this very public corner.
Wilhite also includes photographs not so well known but no less beautiful. I had no idea, for instance, that the lovely stained-glass window displayed in the main entrance of Bidwell Memorial Presbyterian Church on First Street, which Wilhite remembers standing “mesmerized” in front of as a child, even existed, let alone that it is a memorial piece honoring John Bidwell. The history of the making of the window, which used to be located in the old Presbyterian Church of Chico on the corner of Broadway and Fourth Street, as well as the significance of each artistic element of it ("In the large central panel appear two steep mountain cliffs. … These mountains represent the strength of John Bidwell’s character. … The golden valley suggests the fields where he worked and lived. The sunset sky is emblematic of the West which he loved, the land where he lived and died…"), are spelled out at pleasing length on page 26.
Several pages later, one comes across a circa-1866 black-and-white photo of Salem School, Chico’s first permanent schoolhouse, which was located on Salem Street between Seventh and Eighth streets, where a senior citizens’ apartment complex sits today. Every little kid must have come out into the school grounds for this photo, and the handful of teachers, too. One particularly proud-looking little girl sits alone on the sidewalk in front of the school fence next to the horses’ hitching post, smiling in her dapper, beribboned hat, perhaps all the happier because she isn’t “trapped” behind the fence like her schoolmates. Interesting photographic details, like the little girl, abound in this book.
Wilhite, a self-professed dog lover (she acquired her dog, Buddy Love, during the course of making this book from fellow dog lover Gary Quiring, who supplied photographs and did restoration work on a number of the pictures included), points out one of her favorites to me: the fairly hard-to-spot cute canine hanging out in roughly the year 1875 with a bunch of “Flume Riders” in a Big Chico Creek sawmill flume. Wilhite insists that the dog is smiling, and it’s hard not to believe her.
And then there’s Wilhite’s little secret, which she shares with me, along the lines of the late caricaturist Al Hirschfeld’s habit of hiding his daughter Nina’s name one or more times in his drawings (or like Where’s Waldo?, as Wilhite puts it): All of her kids are in a photograph somewhere in the book. Son Charlie is the guy in the shades in the photo on page 48 taken at Scotty’s on the Sacramento River. Sarah is on page 66 on the bridge at One-Mile Dam. Cameron and Alec are at Caper Acres on page 67. Jaime is the soccer player on page 76.
Although she spent about a year and a half making her book and took out a home equity loan to fund the project, Wilhite is not hugely concerned about reaping big financial rewards. “I want to give something back. … This is for Chico,” she explains. “I’m not trying to make a bunch of money.”
My Hometown Chico begins with Annie and John Bidwell and ends with a two-page spread on “one of Chico’s crown jewels,” Sierra Nevada Brewing Company (with mention of the defunct Chico Brewery, established in 1886 in the building on the corner of Ninth and Broadway streets, now occupied by Bustolini’s Delicatessen and Iron Mountain Leather), with stops in between at such Chico highlights as the Maidu Indians of the Mechoopda tribe, the Diamond Match Company, Pioneer Days, Halloween and the annual New Year’s Day Polar Bear Swim.
Wilhite’s take on Chico’s reputation for partying is noteworthy. “Chico’s youngest historian” (as Wilhite playfully refers to herself at one point in our conversation) tells me, in reference to university students being largely blamed for Chico’s party reputation (hence ex-CSUC President Robin Wilson’s fairly infamous quote: “Let’s take Pioneer Days out back and shoot it in the head"): “[Partying] is not something that’s happened because of the university. … It’s because of the Gold Rush. … There were saloons on every corner” in the early days. Chico was originally “a party town with a ratio of 6-to-1 men-to-women.”
What’s not in the book? Chico’s vibrant music scene. After discussing the issue of whether to include Chico music (Spark ‘N Cinder and Brut Max are two of the obvious possibilities) with longtime Chico musicians Kim Gimbal and Scott Pressman, it was agreed that, in Wilhite’s words: “There could be a whole book on music in Chico. There should be an entire book!” A task that she may take on some day, she adds.
Wilhite speaks glowingly and appreciatively of several people who helped during the making of the book.
One is her husband Charlie, who entertained their 2-year old while Marcia worked on her project. “He worked with me, knew it was a destiny for me, helped me do it.”
Another is her friend, the very hard-working Connie Nixon, who’s a graphic artist as well as owner of the Bean Scene. “She was just phenomenal! She did all the [graphic] work here [at the Bean Scene] in the kitchen! … She helped me to make this book beautiful.”
And she mentions her late "Uncle" Arthur Lehmann, who taught anthropology at CSU, Chico, and was the best friend of her dad, retired CSUC anthropology professor James Myers. "Uncle Arthur was such a prominent influence. … He would say, ‘Write a book some day, Marcia. Just do it!'"