Up The Road: The Bidwell Legacy

Aug 17, 2017

We head up the road today and in coming weeks to revisit the legacies of John and Annie E.K. Bidwell, official founders of Chico, though of course the place they most loved, with its rich, marshy bottomlands and tangled riparian forests, had been here practically forever. Just ask Mechoopda people. The tribe’s website offers some thoughtful history and cross-cultural perspective.

Bidwell Mansion in 1890
Credit California State Parks

It’s fair to say that Chico’s founders were high-minded mavericks—generally out of step with the broader community’s thinking but certainly respected by most locals, if not adored. It’s more than a little ironic that in recent decades Chico became nationally known for alcohol consumption and related bad behavior—thanks to Chico State’s hard-partying Pioneer Days—given that the politically progressive Bidwells were active advocates of temperance, the moral movement that led eventually to Prohibition. (The Bidwells also gave land to state to build the college.) They opposed the evils of alcohol for the same reasons they opposed slavery and supported women’s suffrage, including women’s right to vote: It was the right thing to do. Families faced ruin if a man took his paycheck to the saloon every week and drank it away—leaving the wife and children destitute and desperate, with no rights or other resources of their own. We now know more about the complexities of addiction—and also know, the helpful hindsight after the lawlessness of Prohibition, than banning alcohol doesn’t work. But the idea then was, society could only improve if demon rum and its excesses were simply eliminated.

These days even Chico residents whizz right by the Bidwells’ stately mansion on the Esplanade in downtown Chico, now impressively restored as a state historic park. It’s another striking irony that the Bidwells’ legacy in California, and their many gifts to the Golden State, have become so easy to ignore, if not altogether forget. So stopping by the mansion for a guided tour, or getting your group together to request a special tour, is something you really should put on your travel to-do list.

Annie Bidwell in the mansion’s main hall, 1907
Credit California State Parks

Among the first party of overland settlers to arrive in California, in 1841, John Bidwell first worked for fellow pioneer John Sutter as his bookkeeper and business manager. Bidwell helped confirm the Sutter’s Mill gold find, which set off the California Gold Rush, and later discovered serious gold himself on the Feather River near today’s Oroville. With his gold rush earnings, Bidwell started a new career as innovative farmer and horticulturist on his 26,000-acre Rancho del Arroyo Chico—the most admired agricultural enterprise in the state—where he grew wheat and other grains, nuts, olives, raisins, and more than 400 varieties of fruit.

Always active in politics yet always a maverick—meaning, a main who pursued principle, not popularity, not that electable—Bidwell was there in 1850 to help draft the Constitution for the new state of California. He met his future bride, the serious-minded Annie Ellicott Kennedy, in Washington, D.C., while serving in the U.S. Congress from 1865 to 1867.

Nick and Nora Charles were here: Did you know that interior scenes from the 1930s murder mystery The Thin Man were shot in Bidwell Mansion?

Bidwell's first bid for the California governorship was derailed by the state's powerful railroad lobby, and despite his incredible public popularity, he lost again in the 1870s. The Bidwells' farsighted beliefs, which also included support for election reforms and control of business monopolies—Can I hear an amen?—were controversial during the 19th century, not to mention the 20th and 21st, but have proved their worth to subsequent generations.

Closer to home, the Bidwells laid out the earliest streets for what is now the city of Chico, and gave away building lots to anyone who wanted one. To start a teacher's college, they donated land for the Chico Normal School (now California State University, Chico). And they preserved the most beautiful creekside acres of their massive landholdings in a natural state—land Annie deeded to the city as a public park, for all of us—after John's death in 1900. Even Chico's abundant street trees are part of the Bidwells' legacy. So if you’ve forgotten to thank the Bidwells for their vision and generosity, take a minute.