Walking tour guide knows downtown’s history
Tour de Chico
Ever wonder which is the oldest building in Chico? Thousands of people pass by it every day, and many visitors have even been inside of it. Here’s a hint: It’s not Bidwell Mansion.
Tres Hombres Mexican restaurant, located on First and Main, is known in town as the place where coworkers meet for lunch, friends meet over dinner, and college students meet for margaritas. But long before it ever served the meanest chips and salsa around, it was the general store run by John Bidwell while he lived in his old adobe house in 1860—five years before construction began on the Bidwell Mansion. It is the oldest surviving building in Chico.
This and other pieces of local history are the pride of Catherine Beeghly, founder of Chico Tours: Historic Downtown Walks and More, and who also happens to work for the Chico Chamber of Commerce. Through these tours, visitors and Chico residents alike can discover the history of one small but unique city in Northern California.
Beeghly started her tour business a year ago after money issues forced the Bidwell Mansion to cut back on its tour program. Having been a Bidwell Mansion tour guide herself, she was disappointed at seeing groups of schoolchildren turned away and decided that something should be there to introduce them to their town’s history. Dressed in historic Victorian fashion, right down to her tall boots and frilly gloves, Beeghly now leads tour groups on a one-hour stroll through the downtown area, passing historic buildings and landmarks and pointing out bits of Chico trivia. Though her tour groups range across all ages, she says her favorite groups are still the third- and fourth-graders.
“They just love the costume,” she said. “It’s the perfect age; they just love to do it.”
The floor-length dress, wide-brimmed hat and period accessories that make up her costume have become one of her trademarks, and she adds to the collection almost constantly, she said.
“You can put yourself out of business with all the little accessories,” she said.
Many places in town had interesting past lives, Beeghly said, such as the Stansbury House at Fifth and Salem, which once belonged to a local doctor and his family and still contains many of their possessions, including Victorian-era medical equipment. Madison Bear Garden was originally the home and offices of a wealthy lawyer named Franklin Lusk, and the upper story of Bustolini’s Deli on Eighth and Broadway was once a brothel.
The area around that intersection was known as the Junction back in the town’s early years, Beeghly said, and was home to the less reputable aspects of the community, such as prostitution and drinking. Such businesses were kept far from the mansion so as to be out of the sight of Annie Bidwell, who disapproved of this type of behavior. This, by the way, makes Chico’s current party town reputation an interesting irony, Beeghly said.
“Talk about rolling over in her grave about the alcohol,” she said. “[Annie Bidwell] hated alcohol abuse.”
Bidwell Mansion itself served as a women’s college dormitory during the 1920s and as a dormitory for the men’s basketball team in the 1930s, Beeghly said. Fortunately, it did not suffer much damage because of it.
“College students were a little more respectful back then,” she said. “My brother was on the basketball team [at Santa Clara in the 㥘s], and they would have torn the place apart.”
Beeghly’s tours don’t cover just the oldest history, though. More recent events have left their mark on the town as well. One of the best-known Chico tales has to do with the filming of The Adventures of Robin Hood in Bidwell Park in 1938, which later led to the renaming of the north half of Ivy Street to Warner Street in honor of the Warner Bros. company. Another memorable Chico film is Magic Town, filmed in 1947, in which the town, under the name “Grandview,” is dubbed the perfect American small town.
The Senator Theatre is another part of Chico’s show-business history, as the stage hosted traveling shows during the 1920s and 㤦s, World War II shows during the 㤰s and rock concerts in the 㥄s and 㥎s. The theater’s tower, capped by the gleaming prism responsible for the nickname the Diamond Theater, was removed in 1999 due to fears that it might collapse.
“I’m hoping it gets put back up,” Beeghly said. “That was such a landmark on the landscape of Chico.”
A more recent addition to the town’s history is the building of what is called Our Hands outside City Hall, though most of Chico knows them as “those giant hands.” They were made by a sculptor from Davis and cost the city $62,000, or $6,200 per finger, Beeghly said. Some people love the hands, some hate them. One couple had a wedding between them.
“That’s the fun of them, that they’re controversial,” Beeghly said.
The urban legend says that to walk between the hands is good luck, though fourth-graders are usually told that anyone who stands between them for too long will be squished by them.
Beeghly’s favorite piece of Chico trivia is the story behind the town’s origin, she said.
General John Bidwell, who had been a member of the first covered wagon train to California, was riding from Sacramento to Oregon on the trail of some horse thieves. When he set up camp on the bank of what is now Big Chico Creek, he was so moved by the area’s beauty that he made a decision to someday build a town there. Later, when he had the money and the means, he came back to accomplish his mission. He built his house, known historically as the Old Adobe, on the bank of the creek just a few yards east of the mansion’s current location. He built his general store, the first store of the Gold Rush, on the other side of the creek where Tres Hombres now resides. And eventually, under the watchful eye of his wife Annie, the rest of the town became a popular place for families, filmmakers and college students to enjoy, as history has shown.
“This was a swank hangout—the place to come to party,” Beeghly said. Then, as if caught by a stern glance from Annie Bidwell, she quickly added, “I didn’t say that.”
Random Chico trivia:
• Chico was founded in 1860 but wasn’t incorporated until 1872.
• Mechoopda Street and West Sacramento Avenue were once lined with the houses of the Indians who lived on the Bidwells’ ranch.
• The Bidwells married in Washington, D.C. in 1868, the year the mansion was completed.
• Only about one-third of the items now in the Bidwell Mansion were actually owned by the Bidwells.
• Angeline Stansbury, the daughter of the doctor who built the Stansbury House, lived all of her 91 years in the house.
• Most of the trees found on the Chico State campus were introduced by John Bidwell himself from countries like France and Argentina.
• Besides Robin Hood and Magic Town, parts of Chico appeared in 10 other movies, including scenes from Gone With the Wind.
Information courtesy of Chico Tours