The first mansion

Local historian suggests on old photo may be of John Bidwell’s first local abode

Michele Shover stumbled onto some major historical findings during research for a new book.

Michele Shover stumbled onto some major historical findings during research for a new book.

Photo by Kyle Delmar

About the historian:
Michele Shover is a former Chico State professor and one of Butte County’s foremost historians. She has published several books and essays on California and Butte County history.

It’s a story many Chicoans think they know well: Rough-and-tumble Gen. John Bidwell cleaned up his act and began building an opulent mansion in 1865, during his courtship of Annie Ellicott Kennedy. Between 1850 and the mansion’s construction, the only record of where Bidwell lived suggested a log cabin built in 1850.

Michele Shover, an eminent local historian, has found new evidence indicating Bidwell did not live out his bachelor days, as assumed, in rustic splendor. She unveiled her findings at the Chico Heritage Association’s Preservation Awards ceremony May 10.

“You’ll either find it very interesting, or you’ll run me out of town,” Shover said, prefacing her hour-long presentation before a crowd of about 50 CHA members, award winners and history buffs. “It’s a ghost story, really.”

She said she was up late one night perusing Chico State University’s Northeastern California Collection online, looking for pictures to illustrate her latest book, California Standoff: Farmers, Indians and Miners, 1850-1865, when she came across a photo labeled “Bidwell’s 2nd Mill.” Shover immediately recognized the building was no mill, but rather a federal-style farmhouse and, though disused and worn in the photo, a rather substantial one.

“I was startled,” she said. “Apart from the little Wright-Patrick house [located on the Midway] and the small, 1859 section of my own house [the Little Chapman Mansion], I had not seen an image of such a house here.”

Shover explained federal-style farmhouses, a favorite subject of hers, were popular in the early to mid-1800s, and most old houses in Chico feature more Gothic, Victorian and Eastlake influences. The mystery of what the building really was grabbed her and kept her awake nights, but Shover continued to focus on more immediate tasks.

A few weeks later, while doing some fact-checking, she was looking through Wells and Chambers’ 19th-century history of Butte County, which contains Butte County tax assessor’s reports from the 1850s. In the jumbles of numbers she stumbled across a narrative written in 1856: “Bidwell’s princely mansion is surrounded by extensive lawns adorned with princely fountains and fruit and flower gardens, arranged in the most judicious and tasty manner, with subdivisions of which are enclosed with thrifty and variegated hedges, and the whole domain beautifully ornamented, with water for irrigation and ornament. The estate is probably not surpassed in California.”

Shover thinks the photo of the federal farmhouse and the first-hand description of “Bidwell’s princely mansion” nine years before building began on the mansion we know today are one in the same. The home appears in another photo, an 1850s panoramic shot of Bidwell’s headquarters, and was located directly behind the present-day mansion. She said the close-up photo, with the house’s front staircase removed, was likely taken shortly after the present mansion was completed and before the old one was torn down.

The water feature on the side of the house could be part of a fountain or irrigation system like the ones described by the assessor, and might have been why the photo was misconstrued as a mill. Bidwell’s home was also his base of business in the pre-Annie days, and the building may have served as the mill’s office, among other things.

At the time the photos were taken, Bidwell’s headquarters consisted of a mill, a saloon, a store, a hotel, numerous farm buildings and lodgings for the people who kept it all running—25 settlers including laborers, store clerks, millers, blacksmiths, gardeners, a wagon maker and about 60 Native Americans. Shover said that knowledge of Bidwell’s character and common sense dictate that a man with such power, pride and complex responsibilities could not have been slumming it in a decade-old log cabin.

This building, erroneously labeled “Bidwell’s 2nd Mill,” could be John Bidwell’s long-lost bachelor pad.

She said Bidwell’s character and position also explain a feature inconsistent with federal architecture; a sash-like roof halfway up the building that Shover described as “peculiar—even crude—as an add-on to such a dignified building.” Since Bidwell likely ran his business largely from his home, he wouldn’t want a large, inviting porch upon which people could get too comfortable, and opted for a “timbered waiting shelter,” like those seen at bus stops and train depots.

“What do people do in timbered waiting shelters?” Shover asked. “They stand as long as they have to until they do what they are there for and then they leave. Perfect for Bidwell.”

Shover presented compelling circumstantial evidence to back up her claims. In 1852 alone, Native Americans from nearby mountains tried to burn down Bidwell’s headquarters four times. One attempt resulted in the loss of a granary, a carpentry shop, a new hotel and a stable. Also lost, according to federal depositions Bidwell gave to secure government reparations, was 5,000 feet of lumber “for a new house to be erected.” At a time when a nice cottage cost $500, Bidwell’s loss was valued at $26,000, which Shover said establishes Bidwell’s intent to build an extravagant home as early as 1852.

The Native American threat also explains why the old mansion was built in such close proximity to Bidwell’s other buildings, unlike the modern mansions’ more private setting.

“I mentioned the arsons, but there were also murders,” Shover said. She explained that, between 1851 and 1856, Bidwell and his employees “lived under mortal threat from Indian raids.

“In 1856, the year the tax assessor saw the house, ranch Indians allowed mountain Indians to hide in their sweat-house where they made ready to assassinate Bidwell. Bidwell’s party killed 11 of them. After that, the Indian raids on his ranch ceased and the raiders’ focus switched to Tehama County, Rock Creek and the foothills east of Rancho Chico.”

Bidwell was able to buy John Potter’s land across Big Chico Creek in 1860, just as the threat of raids subsided. As Bidwell’s home we know today neared completion in 1867, he began tearing down the old buildings and moving his workers and operations across the water to what is presently downtown Chico.

Shover said her interest in Bidwell is limited, but she wanted to put the information out to help future researchers. She said that Bidwell’s long-gone federal farmhouse itself isn’t so important in the grand scheme of things, but it offers a greater insight into Chico’s formative years.

“The ranch headquarters had come to be thought of as a village or a town,” she said. “Our image of Chico history has almost always centered on the town after Bidwell moved it across the creek in 1860. The information I have been working with, and the physical image of the federal farmhouse, which makes no sense to me except as his house, make 1850s Chico seem a more substantial place than we have been privileged to remember.

“In this sense, Chico was not started in 1860, but in 1850.”