Artists paint, draw and photograph historic relics for Tank House Project
An elaborate, year-long art movement is underway in Butte County to revive a forgotten piece of California history: the tank house.
Beginning in March of last year, 54 North State artists answered the Patrick Ranch Museum’s call to join the Tank House Project and paint, draw and photograph these testaments to California’s ingenuity in order to bring their fascinating stories to life. They visited more than 50 tank houses in five local counties—Butte, Glenn, Tehama, Sutter and Yuba.
Before electric pumps became widely used around the country, water from wells was painstakingly delivered into homes by bucket or by using hand pumps. To alleviate this chore, thousands of Californians, including Chico’s Bidwells, built special, multi-story water tank houses from the 1870s to the 1930s. Each stored up to 1,500 gallons in their top story, allowing gravity to pull water down and into adjacent homes or onto nearby fields to irrigate crops. The lower levels often housed ranch hands or animals.
“My research shows tank houses were unique to California,” said Jan Holman, the historian for Durham’s Patrick Ranch Museum, which has a magnificent one on its property.
Soon after the 1930s these unique structures were forgotten and now stand as relics. Curiously, “there are five or six locally that house the adult sons of their property’s owners,” said Amber Palmer, the Patrick Ranch Museum’s fine arts consultant. “The one in Chico on Eighth Avenue and Magnolia is still used as a rental.”
The artists’ handiwork will be on display throughout the spring and summer, starting at the Patrick Ranch Museum and ending at the Chico Museum. There will be an opening reception at the Patrick Ranch Museum on Saturday, March 31, featuring an awards presentation along with the more than 100 entries for the Tank House Juried Art Exhibition (on display at the ranch through April 14 and during the Chico Nut Festival on April 21). The 18 winning entries also will be featured in a calendar (available for purchase starting April 21) and during a display at the Chico Museum June 14-July 30. Monies raised from calendar sales will go toward Patrick Ranch renovations, upkeep, and its art program.
While visiting the exhibit, the public can tour the tank house that started the whole project. The four-story-tall structure is in excellent condition, especially considering it was built in the late 1870s. Framed by two regal, 50-foot-tall palm trees in front, it is still used as the ranch’s business offices.
Two years ago, while restoring the structure, staff removed a lean-to at the bottom and discovered an entry to a long-hidden basement. It had been used as a giant refrigerator in its day with a root cellar, and still has hooks in the ceiling used for curing meats. It even contains a 15-foot-long pie-cooling safe from the 1870s that once held crocks of pickles, apples, gourds and cured meats. To this day the safe is covered with the wire mesh that kept farm animals and rodents out. And just above the entrance can be seen the original large metal triangle contraption used to hang freshly killed animals for bleeding.
“Each tank house has its own romantic and adventurous history of a mysterious bygone era,” said Holman.