The (sorta) Wild West
Chico wasn’t exactly ‘Frontierland’ 150 years ago, but it was definitely a rough-and-tumble town
Here’s a fun exercise to do while you’re walking in downtown Chico: Let your mind wander back to the years immediately following 1860, which is when Gen. John Bidwell founded the town. Imagine standing on Broadway or Main Street then, when the sidewalks were made of wood, the streets were packed earth, and horse-and-buggy rigs were tied up at hitching posts. You can almost smell it.
Like all Sacramento Valley towns of that Gold Rush era, Chico was rough around the edges. Not only were there more horses than people and more men than women, there were more saloons than churches, as well. There were also quite a few prostitutes, and sometimes they would appear, all made up and wearing expensive dresses, outside Mrs. Oscar Stansbury’s stately home at Fifth and Salem streets, reports local historian Michele Shover.
Most of the people you’d see would be white—miners come down from the Sierra Nevada gold fields for supplies, Portuguese laborers off the farms, lumberjacks and mill hands, tradesmen and professionals—but there was also a sizeable Chinese community (about one-fourth of the population) and a tribe of Indians, the Mechoopda, who lived just north of Big Chico Creek on Bidwell’s 22,000-acre rancho.
It wasn’t an outwardly violent town, and men didn’t go around wearing six-shooters on their hips. But for much of the late 19th century, local vigilante groups carried out a brutal campaign against the foothills-dwelling Indians, especially the Yana Tribe and its Yahi tribelet of the Mill and Deer creek area, raiding their villages and killing everyone they could find. Finally, one night in 1911, a half-naked, famished Indian man was found cowering in a corral at an Oroville slaughterhouse. He would later become famous as Ishi, and he was the last Yahi on the planet.
In 1860, Bidwell still lived in a rough adobe home, but he was politically ambitious and needed more reputable digs, so in 1868 he built the 26-room Bidwell Mansion that stands today as the monument to his influence on the town. It was here he brought his bride, Annie, that same year, and here they hosted such esteemed visitors as John Muir, Susan B. Anthony, Gen. William Sherman and President Rutherford Hayes.
The entrance to Bidwell’s rancho was on First Street, across from the building that now houses the Tres Hombres restaurant at First and Broadway. His general store was in that building, which dates from 1861 and is one of the oldest buildings in Chico, though only one original wall remains.
Chico was originally designed to occupy an area that was about a square mile in size, from Big Chico Creek in the north to Little Chico Creek in the south, and from Wall Street in the east to Sycamore Street (now Normal Avenue) to the west.
At the south, where Broadway curves, becoming (for one block) Oroville Avenue before merging into Park Avenue, was a busy commercial center called the Junction. This was where the various routes into gold-mining country, as well as the Oroville Road, came together, and thus where much provisioning was done.
As time passed, and the gold fields began to peter out, Chico became more and more a farming community where families could build a future, and it began to lose its frontier edge. You don’t have to use your imagination to see evidence of that 19th-century life. Some of it, like Bidwell Mansion, still exists.
St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church, the graceful small redbrick 19th-century church on the corner of Third and Salem streets, originally was St. John’s Episcopal Church and was located at Fifth and Broadway. To make room for a new downtown post office, it was moved—in what must have been a difficult process—to its present site in 1912 and completed in 1914.
Most students at one time or another end up in Madison Bear Garden, the fantastical pub and eatery at Second and Salem streets. What they don’t know is that it was built in 1885 by Franklin Lusk, John Bidwell’s attorney, who was also a prominent banker and president of the Chico Normal School Board of Trustees (now California State University, Chico) in 1888-89. It later became the meeting hall of the Native Daughters of the Golden West, before turning into The Bear in the mid-1970s. Most of the “stuff” that fills the inside came from old movie studio lots.
Directly across Salem Street from the pub and eatery is the Chico Museum, which originally was the town’s library. It was built in 1905 using funds donated by steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, who used his wealth to build libraries in small towns all over the country.
And right around the corner from the museum, at 230 W. Second St., is the Majestic Building , which now houses the El Rey Theatre, Chico’s last (and now defunct) single-screen movie house showing first-run films. Old-timers remember it for midnight movies and Saturday serials. These days it is used occasionally for music events. Originally it was the Majestic Theatre, and it was constructed by the Chico Elks Lodge, which occupied the third floor.
The aforementioned Mrs. Oscar Stansbury was the wife of one of the town’s prominent early doctors. Built in 1883 for $8,000, the Stansbury Home is one of the finest examples of an Italianate Victorian in the North State. It is owned by the city of Chico and administered by the Stansbury Home Preservation Association. The Stansburys’ daughter, Angeline, was born in the home and lived there all of her 91 years. She was a popular art teacher at Chico High School for 40 of those years. The house is open weekends for tours and on special occasions.
If you’re interested in learning more about Chico’s rich history, however, the place to start is Bidwell Mansion. When the Bidwells lived there—he for 32 years, she for 50—it was not only the center of life on their sprawling ranch, but also, as I once described it, the Olympus of Chico social life. Anyone who intends to spend time in Chico should tour the mansion, which is now a state park, and also pop into the Visitor Center next door.
It’s not hard to imagine what life was like in 19th-century Chico, but thanks to the existence of so many historic buildings, you can actually get a real sense of that life.