Saving Chico’s oldest house
State historic-preservation expert questions plan to move 155-year-old dwelling
Darrell Deter’s family history in the Chico area goes back a long way, more than 150 years, perhaps longer than any other family’s. In 1852 or ‘53, his great-grandmother’s brother built the Old Patrick House, which is still standing south of town and is believed to be the oldest wood-frame structure between Sacramento and Oregon.
Deter is a big-shouldered man, well over six feet tall, with a trim white beard. On the day I talked with him, standing among the oaks outside the house, which is also called the Wright-Patrick House, he was wearing boots, jeans and a wide-brimmed black hat pulled low over his eyes. He looked like he came with the place, which in a sense he did.
The occasion was a visit to the house on Nov. 27 by Wayne Donaldson, the state historic preservation officer, who is charged with locating and designating historic California sites worthy of preservation. He’d been invited to offer suggestions on how the house, which is becoming dilapidated, could best be protected. As it turned out, his advice wasn’t quite what folks expected to hear, but more on that later.
While Donaldson was taking a tour of the building, Deter told me something of the house’s history.
His great-grandmother’s brother was Thomas Shelton “Squire” Wright, who ventured to the area around 1849, 11 years before John Bidwell founded Chico, following the Lassen Trail across the Sierra. He was a relatively well-educated man, apparently, and instead of mining for gold he went into business and farming. He was twice elected justice of the peace, and locals sometimes called him Squire Wright out of respect.
He bought some land from Bidwell and built the house originally to be a small inn serving travelers along a stage route. It was located about a half-mile from its present site, near a large oak grove where the Mechoopda Maidu had their original rancheria. The road forded Little Butte Creek there, and Wright figured it was a good place to operate a tavern and bunkhouse. The creek is long gone, plowed over and diverted, but the oaks still stand and can be seen west of the Midway.
A few years later, in 1859, when the stage route shifted to the Oroville Road, Wright moved the tavern to its present site about a hundred yards off the Midway just south of the Glen Oaks Memorial Park cemetery. It’s tucked among the trees, but if you’re looking for it, you won’t miss it. It’s white, though much of the paint has peeled away, and two stories high, with a two-room addition in back. There’s a sagging wraparound porch on three sides.
The two-story section had a tavern downstairs and a sleeping area upstairs. The tavern was composed of two small rooms with a two-sided fireplace in the wall separating them. There guests could eat and drink before retiring to their beds upstairs.
Wright died in 1883, but by then the farm was being managed, quite successfully, by his widowed sister, Melissa Wright Patrick, Deter’s great-grandmother. Marriage brought three families together in the area, the Wrights, the Patricks and the Comptons, and various members lived in the Old Patrick House and the much larger Northgraves/Compton house a few miles to the south. That house was last occupied by the late Hester Patrick, who willed it and the surrounding Patrick Ranch to the Chico Museum Association, which is now called the Far West Heritage Association.
Many Chicoans know of the Patrick Ranch house, which is much grander than the Old Patrick House and is the site of a popular annual threshing bee. But the Old Patrick House, while modest, is in many ways more interesting historically.
Deter said that when he and his brother inherited the house and land they didn’t know what to do with it. They weren’t farmers, and it was too far from town to develop. So they sold it to a family friend, Warren Brusie, who owned the adjacent cemetery. The Brusie family’s long-range plan, he said, was to expand the cemetery to include the Wright property.
To make room for the cemetery, the house would be moved to the Patrick Ranch. Far West had even picked out a site for it, and Valene Posey, a long-time supporter of local historic-preservation efforts, had offered $150,000 to the Chico Heritage Association to renovate and move the house.
The goal had been to move the house next summer, but the CHA soon realized the structure needed to be stabilized and repaired first and $150,000 wasn’t sufficient to cover costs, including a new roof and foundation. Moving alone was estimated at $80,000, CHA President John Gallardo said. A summer deadline was simply too early.
As a result, Far West decided to focus on Patrick Ranch upgrades and put off moving the house for some time. In the meantime, the CHA has been working to stabilize the house so that it doesn’t deteriorate further, especially by putting tarps on the roof to keep the rain out.
Enter Donaldson, the state historic preservation officer, who is an architect specializing in historic structures. He threw a monkey wrench in the works by stating the Old Patrick House should stay right where it is. “This is such a treasure,” he said. “These finds are so rare in California. It really should be preserved on site.”
The context of a historic building, he explained, is just as important as the building itself. Any building that’s been in the same place for 150 years should stay there.
It’s not just a theoretical argument. Preservation funding is available for such houses, but they must be on the National Register of Historic Places to be considered, Donaldson said. The Old Patrick House has been deemed eligible for the register, but moving it could make it harder to get it on the register.
Harder, but probably not impossible. Mark Brusie, who now runs the family mortuary and cemetery business, said in a phone interview he believed it could be done. More important, though, Far West thinks it’s appropriate for the two houses to be together. “It seems the only logical place for it to be is with the organization that’s telling the Patrick family story,” he said.
Either way, there’s no hurry. “We have no immediate plans for the land, and the house is in no danger of being torn down,” Brusie said. “We’re looking at 10 years before we need to start thinking seriously about it.”
For his part, Darrell Deter would prefer the house stay where it is. He spent much of his childhood there, and the grounds hold as many memories as the house does. But if it has to be moved to save it, that’s better than losing it, he said.