Local history on display in John Nopel’s collection of photos at Chico Museum
When John Nopel moved back to his hometown of Chico in 1946, he took a temporary job at Northern Star Mills while waiting for a teaching position to become available.
He worked there only a short time before becoming the first principal of Hooker Oak Elementary School, beginning a three-decade career as a Butte County educator. But what could have been a small diversion from his chosen path, a mere forgotten footnote in a man’s life story, actually marked the beginning of his most enduring legacy: an invaluable collection of several thousand photographs, documents and other ephe-mera that represents arguably the most expansive visual history of the area ever compiled by one person.
“While working at the mill, he started talking and listening to all the old Chico regulars and farmers who’d spent their lives here,” explained David Nopel, John’s son. “This sparked an interest in him that would develop and hold for the rest of his life.”
David noted that his father had a passing interest in history even earlier. John was a third-generation resident of Butte County, and both of his grandparents had come to the area in the 1850s. Since childhood, he’d relished time spent at the family farm—the Bell Ranch west of Chico for which Bell Road is named—listening to family members’ recollections of the old days. But from the late 1940s until his death in 2006, John’s life’s mission was collecting history.
The elder Nopel invested in a good camera and a copy stand, and cultivated contacts who would bring him their family photo collections to be duplicated. As his efforts evolved, he further sought out original, card-mounted photos and other artifacts. By the early 1950s, he’d started transferring the copies and original photos to slides and sharing them publicly.
“I remember him always packing up his slides and a carousel projector and heading out,” his son recalled. “He’d go to a lot of schools, clubs, social organizations and various historical societies. The schools were always particularly important to him, because of his background as an educator working in public schools.”
Today the younger Nopel, a historian in his own right who has penned several articles on history and last year co-authored a book (with Marti Leicester) called The Humboldt Wagon Road—the text accompanied by pictures from his father’s collection—manages what is now known as the John Nopel Collection.
Several hundred photos—which David said represent a mere fraction of the entire collection—have been digitized at Chico State and are available online through the school’s Special Collections department in Meriam Library. Several dozen more have been prepared and installed at the Chico Museum for an exhibit titled Chico in Black and White: Historical Photos from the John Nopel Collection, which opens to the public this Saturday, July 20.
David worked with a team from the Far West Heritage Association—which operates the Chico Museum—to compile several dozen photographs representing a visual reflection of this area’s past. The photographs in the display were carefully restored by local photographer Gary Quiring.
Dianne Donoho, a steering-committee member at the museum who is co-curating the event with David, said the display marks a change of course for the museum.
“We used to do kind of random exhibits on different subjects but have decided to dedicate ourselves to focusing more on the history of the town,” she said, explaining that, moving forward, the bulk of the museum will be dedicated to a permanent historical exhibit with smaller, rotating displays that feed into it.
For his part, David said he couldn’t be happier with the opportunity to share his father’s life work: “It is very pleasing and satisfying to see the focus and spotlight and honor it will bring to my dad—and really my mom, too—because they were such a partnership [and] I don’t think he would have achieved what he did without her support.
“This is his legacy,” he said. “It’s a pretty nifty accomplishment for someone to have their work outlive them.