Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park
By Laura Christman
Estate of the City
By Laura Christman
Photo by Paula Schultz
Teacher. Miner. Merchant. Brigadier general. Agriculture innovator. California senator. United States representative.
John Bidwell had many roles. His wife Annie was her own force, dedicated to service and social progress. The curiosity and convictions of the Bidwells drove change that would shape a piece of Northern California into the community of Chico and influence the region.
Bidwell Mansion is their time capsule. The home, which they moved into following their spring 1868 wedding, is a grand place – three stories, 12,000 square feet, 26 rooms and a watchtower in downtown Chico.
“It is a huge part of the identity for the community – the landmark that basically shows the beginning of Chico,” says Raeann Bossarte, lead interpreter at Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park.
The mansion was the first home in California north of Sacramento with indoor water and flush toilets. The gas lighting was unusual for the time, too. The Bidwells, who didn’t have children, used the many rooms for guests. Visitors included President Rutherford Hayes, suffrage activist Susan B. Anthony, Civil War General William Sherman and naturalist John Muir. Tradition of the time was for men and women to retreat to separate areas following supper, but the Bidwells kept guests together for discussions. Their home became a political and social hub.
John Bidwell died in 1900. Annie, 20 years younger, remained in the house until her death in 1918. She willed the mansion to the Presbyterian Church to be a school. The church sold it to Chico State Normal School, a teachers’ college for which the Bidwells had donated land in 1887 that eventually became Chico State University.
For years, the mansion was merely an old building, used as a dormitory and for classrooms and offices. The state acquired it in 1964.
“It was in fairly decent shape,” Bossarte says. But there was work to be done, including roof replacement and other restoration. Painted all white, it was returned to its original color of muted pink with taupe trim.
“It’s the historic color. There was chemical analysis on the paint to bring it back to the original color scheme,” Bossarte notes.
Upkeep – dealing with bee infestations, water leaks, fixture replacement – is ongoing.
Bidwell Mansion State Park includes a visitors center, carriage house, rose garden and heritage trees. Guided house tours are three days a week. Some 16,000 people went through last year and about 1,200 students participated in school programs, Bossarte says.
Furnishings are a mix of Bidwell belongings and period pieces. A rosewood piano, taxidermy birds (stuffed by the Bidwells’ gardener), paintings, Native American basketry, Chinese tapestry and books are among the original items.
A life-size portrait of John Bidwell painted by Alice Reading, daughter of Redding pioneer Pearson B. Reading, is a tour highlight, Bossarte says. His eyes seem to follow as you move. Kitchen bells, each with a distinct tone to alert staff, are a curiosity, as are the elephant-trunk-design toilets.
Bossarte’s favorite room is the library filled with books, many on agriculture and politics. “I love that room. It really shows who they were – their interests and their intellect.”
The tours are a journey back in time.
“There is so much information. We can only touch on a little bit,” Bossarte says. She hopes tour participants are inspired to learn more about the Bidwells and the impact they had on the region.
John Bidwell was 22 when he came west by wagon train in 1841. He worked for John Sutter and helped confirm the authenticity of the 1848 California gold discovery. Bidwell found gold on Feather River, and had success as a miner and merchant selling goods to miners. He purchased the 22,000-acre Rancho del Arroyo Chico to raise livestock and grow wheat, alfalfa, fruits
Bidwell experimented with crops and brought new varieties to the region, getting credit for Casaba melon and blame for Bermuda grass. He was first in the state to commercially grow olives for olive oil and grapes for raisins. He recognized the risks that hydraulic mining posed to farming and the importance of crop diversity.
“I think he was such an intelligent, curious man, and willing to take risks,” Bossarte says.
She describes Annie Bidwell as a strong woman with deep convictions. “She was quite her own woman way before she met John. She volunteered at Civil War hospitals and had a drive all of her own toward good causes.”
Annie Bidwell was active in the suffrage and temperance movements and a proponent of libraries. She deeded some 2,200 acres of land along Chico Creek to the city for a park. Bidwell Park, with additional acreage added later, became one of the largest city-owned parks in the country. •
Guided tours of Bidwell Mansion:
Hourly from 11 am to 4 pm Saturday, Sunday
and Monday, beginning in the visitors center,
525 Esplanade, Chico
Adults, $6; youth ages 5-17, $3; children 4 and younger, free