Our intrepid reporter and photographer investigate at the side of the road so you don’t have to
A larger-than-life Day-Glo bee bids you farewell as you exit the town of Paradise. Llamas and ostriches and, yes, even a lone buffalo curiously roam the fields off Highway 99 as you turn off on 149 heading to Oroville. And just south on 99, a tall, fire-blackened factory beckons with its indescribable smell.
There are, of course, others—the sad-looking catfish hovering over Highway 32 just east of Chico, the cow perched atop a gas station just a few miles farther in. Driving by these local icons, you might wonder—just what are they? Where did they come from? And who has the expertise, resolve and obscene amount of free time to actually stop to find out about them?
A crack team composed of one professional photographer and one semi-professional stay-at-home mom were sent out on this mission: to pry open the mysteries that lurk within these … “roadside distractions.”
On a classic Northern California fall afternoon, yellow leaves offering a stark contrast to the blue canyon beyond, I travel down the Skyway toward Chico in search of “The Bee.” OK, there he is, quickly approaching on my left. I slow down, trying to maneuver into the parking lot. Darn! I overshoot. I finally manage to park on the side of this pedestrian-unfriendly one-way highway and trudge back up to my destination: the Skyway Carousel motel.
I knock on the owner’s door. A woman cautiously opens, introducing herself only as “Miss Rose.”
I ask her about the bee. She corrects me—there are actually two of them. I turn around and see the other one, slouching sadly behind a metal fence along the backside of the property.
A family lived here at one time, she explains, and the children were known to go, well, kind of wild. “They went back there with a big iron rod and they beat up the honey bee.”
Originally, these bees proudly floated down Colorado Boulevard in the Pasadena Rose Parade, back in 1994. Miss Rose, who has owned the motel for the last three years, isn’t sure how they made the long journey up to Paradise, but she does have plans to fix them up again—get a little Styrofoam, a little paint and fix the wire that makes up the skeletal innards of the invertebrates. “[I’ll] put some more artificial flowers around the bottom, and [they’ll] be as good as new.”
Her theory on their appeal to passersby? “It attracts their attention, that’s what it does. And it kind of reminds you of Disneyland.”
At the point where Highway 99 meets Highway 149 sits a large patch of land known as the Exotic Barnyard. After photographer Tom Angel and I look unsuccessfully for some animals of the exotic variety, Jeff Burges, who runs the place, explains the disappearance of the mysterious creatures.
“The exotic animals aren’t up here anymore. All’s we have is the fishing. They’re here on the property, but [the owner] moved them out.”
I am crestfallen—no more llamas? Ostriches? Lonely buffalo?
Actually, they are all still here, just not available to the public for viewing except when a glimpse can be made from the roadside. Or purchased, if you are so inclined.
Burges emphasizes, however, that many come now for the fish instead.
“The main thing I do here is sell catfish to people as a food item, for dinner, and then people come fishing. Whatever you catch, you have to keep and pay for.” He walks us through the mini-mart to three large cement tanks, one containing big, blue, beautiful whiskered fish.
“They’re blue channel catfish. People come in, they buy fresh fish.”
Jeff Dieringer, a regular to the place and catfish-grabbing expert, reaches in bare-handed and hoists one up for a picture.
Out beyond the tanks are two ponds. The one on the left will be getting a thousand pounds of trout this November; the one on the right is already stocked with catfish. “We supply bait, fishing poles. You can bring your own poles, or you can rent them.”
Burges is enthusiastic about the changes being made. “I’ve been adding on in here, carrying more items for people, cigarettes, beer, sodas, snacks, candy bars, craft supplies, just a lot of odds and ends.”
A restroom is in the works as well, to further entice weary travelers.
Just a short jaunt to the south of the new fish farm is a tall, ominous factory. We pull off the highway to be stopped by a locked gate and a little intercom. I explain the purpose of our visit. There is confusion—why, exactly, are we here?
I am met at the gate by a cautious Chris Ottone, third-generation owner of the North State Rendering Plant. He is suspicious of our stated purpose. I convince him to let us tell his story, and we are ushered across the threshold and into, in the words from some Disney CD of my son’s, “a whole new world.”
No, scratch that—all I can see are lots and lots of big trucks and a very old-looking factory, blackened in places by fire. I confess to knowing very little about what a rendering plant does, or this one’s long history. Ottone is happy to educate me.
"[Rendering has] been around since the beginning of time. People used to do it on the farm, slaughter the cow and make lye soap and use the hides. As people moved to the cities, we started doing factories.” The first modern rendering plant was built 1890, in New York, to deal with the horses that had expired after careers pulling carriages.
“Every town used to have a slaughterhouse and a rendering plant. Not anymore. There’s only about 12 in the whole state.” This plant earns its name from the area it serves, the entire upper third of the state, from I-80 all the way up to Medford, Ore., to the north.
The many trucks on the property are a vital part of the process. “We pick up dead animals at farms, and it all goes into the same things—dog food, floor wax—all kinds of things. A lot of products are derived from animal by-products.”
Meat and bone meal produced by the plant, as well as yellow grease from restaurants, all go into feed additives. Tallow, a so-called “virgin fat,” is melted down and made into soap and cosmetics. The hides are sold for leather products, “for your footballs and your shoes and your couches, that’s where it comes from.”
So, I comment, you’re basically a recycling plant. “We’re 100 percent recycling, always have been. … We recycle two and a half million pounds a month of stuff that would go to your landfill.”
One misconception that Ottone corrects is the idea that the plant kills animals. “Anything we pick up is already dead. We don’t slaughter.” Which explains the smell and the isolated location. “We’re quiet, we don’t advertise it. It’s not a glamorous job by any means, but it’s a necessity of life.”
Ottone surprises me with the proud admission that rendering is a family business. He’s the third generation—his grandfather came over from Italy and started a plant in Monterey in 1919.
“There’s not too many left. Most everything’s gone big, like everyplace else, a big chain. Big companies have hundreds of plants.”
Ottone explains that the renovations necessary to get the plant rendering again since a devastating fire less than a year ago (caused by a welding spark) won’t be completed until after the New Year. “I’m trying to build a new plant here. I’m tearing most of this down. It’s going to look better from the highway.”
As we shake hands and prepare to leave, Ottone motions to the flag waving proudly from the top of the plant. "People say when they’re coming home [and see] the beacon of the rendering plant, they know they’re almost home."