Stony resolve

Local group works to protect historic rock walls

Jeramie Sabelman poses by the rock wall that parallels Humboldt Road as it climbs into the foothills east of Chico.

Jeramie Sabelman poses by the rock wall that parallels Humboldt Road as it climbs into the foothills east of Chico.

Photo by Howard Hardee

Up next:
Chico Museum (141 Salem St.) will present “The Chico Fire Department—Stepping Through Time” on Saturday, Dec. 3, starting at 10 a.m. $5 admission.

Many decades ago under the valley sun, workers used horsepower and force of will to haul and arrange heavy boulders across miles of uneven landscape.

That’s always fascinated Jeramie Sabelman. Using Google Earth, he recently mapped about 50 miles of stone walls that rise from the grassy foothills east of Chico. He’s traced most of the structures in the area and elsewhere in the North State, including a stony perimeter around the Sutter Buttes mountain range.

Sabelman is a member of a local group called Respect the Walls, which is working to protect the structures as new development encroaches eastward. The group presented “The Story of Chico’s Rock Walls” on Saturday (Nov. 19) as part of Chico Museum’s ongoing speaker series.

“I want to preserve the walls for future generations who don’t have a say in it,” Sabelman told the CN&R.

The walls in Chico were built between 1870 and 1910 and stretch through the wide-open spaces from Neal Road to the Chico Municipal Airport. They are disappearing because people are taking the rocks home, presumably using them for private landscaping. The cumulative result is noticeable. Some sections of a rock wall that parallels Humboldt Road are rubble; others are missing entirely.

The structures are listed as historic resources and may be considered for protection on a case-by-case basis under the California Environmental Quality Act. However, considering their disrepair, the local group wants to initiate further protections.

At the request of Respect the Walls, Michael Magliari, a Chico State history professor, launched a new investigation that sheds light on why the walls were built and are worth preserving. For starters, they represent an important shift in the history of California, he said during the presentation at Chico Museum.

“In 1870, the California Legislature changed the fence laws in the state and brought to an end the open-range cattle industry,” he said. “After 1871, the farmers gained the upper hand in California politics and the onus to contain livestock was put on the cattlemen. They had to start building fences of some kind.”

In addition to keeping livestock away from homesteads and agricultural areas, the walls marked the property boundaries of pioneering families. As for who physically built the walls, Magliari found it difficult to separate facts from legend. Apparently, when they were constructed, no one anticipated that they’d become historically interesting.

“In their own day, they were considered so mundane, so ordinary, that nobody bothered to write anything about them,” Magliari said.

According to local lore, the walls were built by Chinese laborers, and there’s truth in that, he said. Some of the workers who built the walls also were of Portuguese and Basque descent, and others relocated from the Azores, off the coast of Portugal.

In terms of construction, they’re not merely haphazard piles of stones, Magliari said. “On the contrary, they are intricate and complex constructions of carefully laid rocks, each requiring deliberate positioning by a skilled and experienced craftsman.”

Magliari argued for preserving the walls as “beautiful and important examples of rural vernacular architecture and immigrant peasant dry stone masonry construction.”

Respect the Walls wants the city of Chico to add the stone structures to its Historic Resources Inventory, which would provide some protection by triggering a review process if a developer proposed demolishing them. With his mapping project mostly complete, Sabelman says he will submit an application to the city’s Public Works Department within the next few weeks; such a designation would need approval from the Chico City Council.

Moving forward, Sabelman hopes the city will balance the demands of the area’s growing population with the historical value of the walls. He points to California Park, where an old wall was left standing amid a modern housing development.

Sableman prefers that approach—building around rather than tearing down.

“Do I wish we could keep all of the walls? Of course,” he said, “but that’s just not realistic.”