Writings of a Wanderer: Bidwell Mansion Houses Chico History

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Bidwell Mansion, a 26-room Victorian house sporting pink-tinted plaster, nestles in a small park next to Chico State University’s new Gateway Science Museum.

The manor-turned-museum built in 1868 stands as a memorial to Chico’s founder, John Bidwell, and his wife Annie. It reminds residents of Chico’s beginnings and provides visitors with a peek into the life of a pioneer and statesman.

I toured Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park for the third time in my life on a Sunday morning this spring. The three-story mansion amazed me with its walk-in closets connecting rooms, the ballroom never used for dancing (Presbyterians weren’t allowed to dance), and the huge painting of John Bidwell that appears to move. “He’ll watch you go up the stairs,” my tour guide explained. There’s so much to see and learn, and every guided tour is slightly different.

While standing in John Bidwell’s office, next to a table once used to map out the town, my guide, Derrick, rattled off numbers about the 12,000-square foot home. It boasts 26 rooms, 11 bedrooms and eight coal-burning fire places.

As a bachelor, John Bidwell built the expansive house for political entertaining. He welcomed guests such as President Rutherford B. Hayes, Civil War General William T. Sherman and naturalist John Muir to his home. John Bidwell ran for governor of California three times and served as a representative in Congress in the mid-1860s. He made his wealth through gold mining and spent about $56,000 building the Italian-style villa. Derrick equated that to about $6 million to $8 million today.

Derrick described Chico’s founder as a progressive. Bidwell Mansion features gas lighting, running water, flush toilets and an air cooling system. Bidwell installed a sink and a walk-in closet in every room. Closets were rare at the time, in part because property value was determined by the number of doors in a home, according to my tour guide.

Bidwell also installed wall-to-wall carpeting in the house. It’s been remodeled and restored since then, but visitors can still admire the home’s original crown molding, the hand-painted fireplaces and some of the original furniture. “Everything in the house is appropriate for its time,” Derrick said.

John Bidwell’s wedding gift to his wife, a square grand piano made of rosewood, still stands in the home. Annie Ellicott Kennedy Bidwell, the daughter of a high-ranking Washington official, was a devout Presbyterian and a prohibitionist. She was also 20 years her husband’s junior. She turned John Bidwell down several times before agreeing to marry him, my guide explained.

The statesman tore down his vineyard and built the Bidwell Presbyterian Church for the woman he loved. Bidwell Mansion was completed in 1868, the year the Bidwells married.

In the 1880s, John Bidwell donated several acres of his cherry orchard for a teachers college named Chico State Normal School, which later became California State University, Chico.

The Bidwells’ history is clearly intertwined with that of Chico’s. Touring Bidwell Mansion connects visitors with the past and inspires an appreciation for the present.

After the tour, I explored Chico State University’s new Gateway Science Museum, which opened in late February. I viewed local nature photographs, examined skeletons of a short-faced bear and a saber-tooth cat, and steered clear of the giant animatronic insects, particularly the 12-foot-long scorpion.

The science museum seemed like an ideal place for a field trip. It aims to educate children about the natural wonders of the north state through science and art activities. I think John Bidwell would be proud.

Touring Bidwell Mansion:

Check out some photos of Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park and the neighboring Gateway Science Museum.

Bidwell Mansion’s Visitor Center is open at noon-5 p.m. Monday-Wednesday and 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday and Sunday. It is closed Thursday and Friday.

Tours leave on the hour and take about 50 minutes, with the last tour leaving at 4 p.m. Tours run from noon to 4 p.m. Mondays through Wednesdays, and from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Group tours should make reservations at (530) 895-6144.

Tours cost $6 for adults and $3 for children and teens. Admission is free for children 4 and under. Visit http://www.parks.ca.gov/?page_id=460 for directions or to learn more about Bidwell Mansion.

Exploring the Gateway Science Museum:

Admission costs $5 for adults and $3 for children. It’s free for museum members. Regular hours are noon to 5 p.m. Wednesday-Friday and 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Saturday-Sunday. From June 14 to July 22, museum hours are 8:30 a.m. to noon Monday-Thursday.

The museum, located at 625 The Esplanade in Chico, will be closed May 2 to June 13 for exhibit installation. Call (530) 898-4121 or visit http://www.csuchico.edu/gateway/ for details.

Journalist Lauren Brooks lives in Chico. She is a CSU, Chico alumna who graduated with a B.A. in journalism in spring 2006. She can be reached at lmbrooks.work@gmail.com.

lives in Bellevue, Washington. She is a CSU, Chico alumna who graduated with a B.A. in journalism in spring 2006. She can be reached at lmbrooks.work@gmail.com.
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1 Response

  1. Avatar Dorothy Nethery says:

    Thank you for a reminder of another treasure we have in the North State. I haven't been there in several years, but another tour of Bidwell Mansion will be added to my "bucket list."