History in jeopardy
Locals decry the forthcoming closure of Bidwell Mansion
When John Bidwell first stumbled onto the land that is now known as Chico in 1843, he described it as a “revelation”—luxuriant and fertile, with cold, clear water. This was where he decided to settle and build his mansion—a house that not only represents the communal heritage of Chico, but the entire history of California itself.
In less than a year, Bidwell Mansion may be closed to the public permanently due to California’s budget crisis; sealing the doors to the lasting testament of Bidwell’s impact on our city and state. Many Chicoans are angered or saddened that this is what the Legislature has decided. Some, like those at the Bidwell Mansion Association, are still hoping to change some minds in Sacramento to keep the mansion open.
“I’m sad and I’m disappointed that this is the solution to our budget problems,” said Amber Drake, guide supervisor at Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park. “It’s not just because I work here; it’s because I understand what we do here and how important it is.”
John Bidwell was a crucial player in the creation of the state of California, she said, and his mansion symbolizes something greater than just the city of Chico. Chicoans generally know him as the founder of their city and the normal school that would later become Chico State, but his list of achievements goes much further.
Bidwell blazed the California Trail and brought the first group of settlers on foot over the Sierra Nevada in 1841, when no trail yet existed. He served as a major during the Mexican-American War and was at the Bear Flag Revolt, which marked the crucial shift from Mexican to American power in California. This was where American soldiers created a makeshift flag with a grizzly bear on it that inspired our state flag.
Bidwell was among the first to strike it rich in the Gold Rush, and he was the one who took a piece of gold-bearing quartz to Washington, D.C., and brought back California’s statehood papers in 1850.
A major concern for Drake is the fact that there won’t be any more elementary school field trips to the mansion, which have become a rite of passage for students in Butte County.
“If you wanted to teach children, or adults even, about California history and you were to make up a fictitious character who would be in the right place at the right time for all these significant events, you really couldn’t do better than John Bidwell,” Drake said. “I’m sad to think that we don’t get to keep telling these kids about the story of their state.”
Among the criteria used when deciding which parks to close was “statewide significance,” fiscal strength, visitation and ability to physically close. Of the 70 state parks scheduled for closure, 21 are state historic parks. There are only 47 state historic parks in California, and most of those closing are in the North State.
“Unfortunately, in Northern California, we have such low visitation compared to Southern California. They’re able to capture numbers saying that despite closing these 70 parks, they’re still going to be serving 98 percent of their visitors,” she said. “This isn’t a fair shakedown.”
Mike Magliari, a Chico State history professor and vice president of the Bidwell Mansion Association, has been working with local legislators to save Bidwell Mansion, but to no avail. The nonprofit BMA is the fundraising arm for Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park. It has mailed more than 1,000 postcards from supporters to legislators, and it’s urging others to write or call on their own.
“We’re trying to show the legislators that there’s a huge public support for keeping the mansion open,” he said. “Their response so far has been very disappointing, except for voting for AB 42, but that doesn’t look very promising for Bidwell Mansion.”
Assembly Bill 42, which is awaiting Gov. Jerry Brown’s signature, would allow an operating agreement between a state park and a nonprofit organization. Magliari argued that Bidwell Mansion is simply too costly for the BMA to run alone.
“It may work for a handful of state parks, but it’s really full of problems and uncertainties,” he said. “The existing budget, as bad as it is, still has enough money squirreled away that you could keep [Bidwell Mansion] open through the economic crisis.”
It was state politicians who chose to cut funding to State Parks, but the agency’s director, Ruth Coleman, ultimately chose the 70 parks to close. There are back rents in the millions of dollars that the State Lands Commission hasn’t collected on behalf of the taxpayers, Magliari said. There’s also a multimillion-dollar surplus inside of State Parks itself in the Off-Highway Motor Vehicle Recreation Fund (OHV) section.
“They’re sitting on a surplus that they are unwilling or unable to spend, while the other half of State Parks is starving to death,” he said. “We’re hoping that our legislators will intervene and compel the OHV division to grant or lend some of that money to some of the state parks that are slated to be closed, especially Bidwell Mansion.”
On Oct. 1, the mansion’s hours will be cut to three days a week—Saturdays, Sundays and Mondays—through April, when it’s scheduled to close completely (to give staff enough time to pack everything up before July 1, 2012). Its historic artifacts will be boxed up and shipped to an “Indiana Jones-style warehouse,” Drake said. This means that 5,500 artifacts of Chico’s cultural history will be lost to the public for, at minimum, a few years.
Drake is particularly saddened about the loss of the collection of Machoopda Maidu watertight cooking baskets made for Annie Bidwell. “We still have relatives of those basket weavers who come and share their ancestors’ basketry with their friends and family,” she said.
Annie Bidwell’s square grand piano that John got her for a wedding present in 1868, which they keep in tune and allow people to play on the tours, will go quiet. The enormous memorial painting of John Bidwell that has an illusion of movement—one of the most memorable parts of the mansion tour, Drake said—will no longer be a part of Chico’s accessible history.
“It would be a huge loss for Chico. The Bidwell Mansion is the most historically and architecturally significant building in our community and north of Sutter’s Fort,” Magliari said. “It’s our historic point of origin.”