Lyn Batt wrote about 19th-century pioneers; now she’s moved—and moving into—their old hotel
When Lyn Batt started researching the Messilla Valley region 20 years ago, she had no intention of living and making the history herself. She simply hoped to compile many sources into one and to leave a legacy for her family."I’m just so blessed.”
That’s Batt’s catchphrase these days. And it’s not hard to see why. She just published a book, Conflicts Between Settlers and Indians in the Northern Sierra Foothills. She purchased a historic hotel, which is featured in the book. And she moved it onto a piece of historic land that she bought just half a mile away. The parcel is in the heart of the Messilla Valley, four miles east of Butte College.
Last year, Batt’s father, Dale Dunlap, bought the Pence Hotel from Clayton Gunn, the owner of the Lucky 7 Ranch—now the Lord’s 7 Ranch—off Durham-Pentz Road east of Clark Road. Gunn had planned to tear it down to build a church. That sent a shockwave through Batt. She thought: “Don’t let them tear it down! It’s history!”
And she would know.
She’d been researching the area for two decades—specifically the conflicts between Native Americans and white settlers in the mid- to late-1800s. The 1849 Gold Rush brought thousands of settlers to the area. One of them was Manoah Pence, the first owner of the hotel Batt now owns. She estimates it was built in the late 1850s to early 1860s.
She bought the hotel from her dad this year. The hard part was figuring out where to move it. She tracked down a family that owned land about half a mile east, where the old Messilla Valley School once stood, and after throwing a couple of offers back and forth finally was able to buy the two acres that will be her new home.
“I have to sell my house to finance this,” she said. She plans to move into the hotel and restore it to its former glory. Climbing up into the old building—it’s still standing on supports until the foundation is laid down, Batt walked into one of the rooms and pointed out at the valley.
“This is one of my favorite places,” she said. “Just look at the view!”
A week earlier, the view was quite different, though you can see the old site from the new one. The last remaining building from the settlement of Pentz was moved by truck, over land, to its new location. Little wooden bridges had to be built over breaks in the ground, and fences had to be removed. It took the movers about four hours, including waiting time for power lines to be taken down (at a cost of $9,000 from PG&E and $3,000 from AT&T).
“We wanted to get rid of the house,” Gunn said. A fire in the kitchen a few years ago had caused considerable damage that he wasn’t ready to pour money into to repair. His father had bought the ranch in the 1940s from the Chico Meat Co., which once operated a slaughterhouse in the area, and they rented out the hotel to mostly couples, many of whom didn’t stay very long. The Gunns remodeled and restored it a number of times, but after the fire it was no longer worth it for a rental house.
“I’m glad Lyn got it,” Gunn said. “I hope she gets all the money she needs to fix it up.”
The hotel needs considerable work. Many of the walls are crumbling, but Batt uses this to show that they are the original walls. “See the hair in the plaster?” she asked. She guesses that when the plaster was created, it was made with animal hair from the meat company nearby. She also found a good number of square nails on the property—an indication that they are the genuine, hand-made articles.
Batt has already ripped out some of the carpeting to reveal the wood floors beneath. The fireplace in the center of the building was removed in order to move the hotel to its current location. At the moment there are no exterior doors, though that is the first item on her to-do list. She has all of the originals, complete with skeleton-key locks. But she plans to install dead bolts.
Another project will be refurbishing the attic. It has such a high ceiling, Batt said, it could be a whole other room. Batt hopes that when the hotel is finished she can hold regular picnics and get the historical society involved.
During her research, Batt learned quite a bit about the Pence family. She learned about Manoah Pence, who moved to California in 1849, made a good living digging for gold, and eventually bought out his business partners—they ran a store on what was then the Lyon Ranch—and made the ranch his own. He married Sophia Chase in 1857, a year after she arrived with her sister. She had already lost a husband and two children. At about the time of their marriage, the hotel was built.
In 1864, Pence applied for a post office in the hotel. The government approved it but spelled it P-E-N-T-Z instead of P-E-N-C-E—hence today’s spelling. The couple lived in a house next door and had two children, one of whom, Watt, lived into adulthood.
Manoah Pence had a large ranch and was well-known in the community. In the 1860s it was legal to hunt and kill Indians. And Pence did just that. The biggest trouble came between the settlers and the Yahi, or the Mill Creek Indians. There was a constant back-and-forth between settlers killing Indians and Indians killing or raiding the settlers.
In her book, Batt writes that the chief of the Concow Indians was hanged from a tree next to the Pence Hotel. He had been accused of stealing Pence’s cattle after being allowed to stay on the ranch. And one of the other settlers, Hiram “Hi” Good, apparently carried around the scalps of the Indians he killed. Good was eventually shot to death by an Indian boy he had raised.
In 1863, after the murders of a number of white children and raids on houses in the area by Native Americans, many of the settlers gathered at the Pence Ranch to discuss their removal. John Bidwell was among them, and he pleaded for his Indians—he was well-known, but not always liked, for his respect and good treatment of the Indians on his ranch.
Many of the men wanted to kill the Indians for what they had done to the children—some of them did. A round-up was arranged, and in August of that year more than 400 Native Americans arrived at the Bidwell Ranch and were marched 100 miles to the Round Valley Reservation, near Covelo, in Mendocino County. Half of them died en-route.
The conflicts did not end there, and Sophia Pence became very protective of her son, Watt. She was afraid that he would be kidnapped—after all, her husband was a widely known Indian hunter—so she didn’t allow him to leave the ranch. She home-schooled him until most of the Native Americans had been sent to reservations. Then he was finally allowed to attend the Messilla Valley School, which was at that time located near Dry Creek, south of Durham-Pentz Road.
In 1880, the Pence Hotel had a very famous visitor—two, in fact. President Rutherford B. Hayes made a speech from the front porch. Hundreds of people from the surrounding area came to hear. With him was Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, hero of the Civil War. They were on their way to visit the Cherokee diamond mine and had also stopped at the Bidwell Mansion.
That was probably the most exciting event the hotel saw, though it had been the site of social gatherings and often offered a warm bed to weary travelers. In 1882, Manoah Pence died suddenly of a “congestive chill.” Ten years later, Sophia and Watt, for lack of being able to afford the place, left the ranch for Paradise.
Batt spent 20 years researching and compiling the area’s history. She collected diaries, journals, rare books. It took 15 years to track down one of her best sources, a book by Robert Anderson, Fighting the Mill Creeks. He had been an Indian hunter and became the sheriff of Butte County in 1888. She submitted request after request through a rare book search, and 15 years later someone finally located a copy in Grass Valley. It cost her $89 for the slim volume, but she didn’t care.
When she was tracking down information about the Pence family, Batt sought the help of Paradise historian Lois McDonald in finding any living relatives. After a few months, McDonald called her back with a phone number of one of Sophia’s descendents, Ed Knox.
Batt and Knox, who lived in the San Bernardino area, corresponded for about a year. They talked on the phone, sent letters back and forth. Finally, Knox said to Batt, “I want to give you this family scrapbook.” It had belonged to Sophia. Jackpot.
“I’ve seen some of the photos here and there, so people have borrowed before,” Batt said, flipping through the scrapbook ever so carefully. She doesn’t allow anyone to touch it—when she opens the book, she uses a white glove or sock to protect the pages. “But that’s the source right there. I feel like I am a keeper of the history.”
Knox also sold Batt a carving set that he said came from the hotel.
“I want anything I can find that came out of that hotel,” Batt said. So she didn’t flinch at the $100 price tag. Knox’s wife, Lee, donated a small clock that came from the hotel, saying she knew her husband wanted Batt to have it. She also owns an 1880s horse buggy, which she says will fit right in with its new surroundings.
“I sort of live in the past,” Batt said, laughing.
She had hoped that Knox and his wife, along with McDonald, would be present for the big moving day. Sadly, Batt said, both Knox and McDonald passed away last year, within 10 days of each other.
Batt has lived in her present home for six years. It sits on four acres off Pentz Road and looks out over the Messilla Valley. Sitting on the back patio, you can actually see the hotel at its new location on Messilla Valley Road. “I come out and look at it sometimes,” she said, smiling.
Batt keeps a lot of animals around the house—she has “8 1/2 horses” (one of them is just 4 months old), two pot-bellied pigs, two pygmy goats, 11 chickens, four guinea hens, two dogs, a cat and two goldfish. When she sells her house, she plans to bring most of them with her to the hotel. Only half of the horses will likely make the move. The horses, thoroughbreds, actually belong to her father. He kept horses on the Lucky 7 Ranch for 20 years until Batt moved into her present home.
Batt’s parents live in Paradise, as do her son and one of her two sisters. She also has a brother, two daughters and four grandsons who call her their “tractor grandma.” Her husband passed away about 12 years ago from leukemia. Batt raised their three kids, now in their 20s, and worked at the Feather River Hospital in Paradise—where she still works.
“My family supports me in whatever I want to do, though they’d like to see me live here,” she said from the back patio of her current home. But when her family and friends ask her why, oh why, would you sell your beautiful home to live in that old hotel, she simply replies, “It’s a dream. I’m living a dream.”