Thursday, August 25, 2011


It's pink! The Bidwell Mansion State Historic Park in Chico is pink! It's a beautiful, three-story, 12,000 square foot, 26 room Victorian House that stands as a memorial to John and Annie Bidwell. The overall style of the three-story brick structure is that of an Italian Villa, and cost around $60,000 at the time of construction. The exterior is finished with a pink tinted plaster.

In case you can't tell, it took me a few minutes to recover from it's pinkness. I guess pink houses and early California settlers have not gone hand in hand in my brain until now! My Mom would have loved it!

Wednesday, August 17, my friend Patty and I, along with my foster dog Roxy, set out for a six day road trip with the goal of visiting nine northern California state parks on the closure list. We left Placerville at 10:00am and headed to the Bidwell Mansion for our first stop. With tours on the hour, we had enough time to lug our ice chest and a blanket onto the front lawn near the pink gazebo and the Monkey Puzzle Tree, and enjoy a picnic lunch in the shade among the squirrels, woodpeckers and scrub jays.

Bidwell led one of the first wagon trains to California and founded the town of Chico, naming streets after trees that spell the town's name (Chestnut, Hazel, Ivy, Cherry, & Orange). Over the years he was many things - a pioneer, soldier, statesman, politician, philanthropist - but his first and foremost passion was always farming. His discovery of gold in the Feather River enabled him to purchase over 30,000 acres by 1850. In addition to his cherry orchard, he grew wheat which he ground at his own mill and baked his "up to the minute biscuits" on the same day. He developed varieties of almonds and olives, produced California's first raisin crop and aided in the development of the casaba melon. Novelty trees dot the mansion grounds including the Monkey Puzzle Tree, Gingko Biloba and Southern Magnolia. I found myself viewing him as kind of a farm nerd. Until his death in 1900, he continued to build his agricultural showcase.

I was pleased to see that there were about 20 of us for the 1:00pm tour. Once inside, the pinks of the exterior gave way to warm golds and browns. Our guide, Blair, asked us to refrain from touching anything inside and guaranteed us that in the first room someone would be caught leaning against the table. The first room is John Bidwell's office off to the left. I clumsily bumped into an end table, and saw Blair chuckle as I reprimanded myself for touching an artifact. And then as predicted, he asked one of the other tourists not to lean against the table! A portrait of General Sherman hangs over Bidwell's desk. Although good friends with the Bidwells - including attending their wedding in Washington DC - he only ever spent one night at the mansion. Mrs. Bidwell did not permit smoking, drinking or swearing in her home, so General Sherman spent most of his Chico visits at a nearby hotel.

Across the hall from the office is the living room. The original grand piano - a wedding gift from John to his beloved Annie - is still played. Blair invited anyone who knew how to play the piano to do so. One lady offered up a butchered version of Chopsticks. Then Patty pointed to me. A hymnal sat on the piano so I opened it at random and played a song that turned out to have the same melody as America the Beautiful. After a round of applause and an awkward bow on my part, the tour continued.

In addition to the piano, some of the chairs and other furnishings are original, but many of the pieces were bought long ago by private parties. So, as with the Stanford Mansion, the rest has been replicated as closely as possible from old photographs. I was curious if the American Flag drapery was a recent addition, but in fact the Bidwells hung such drapes for holidays and other festive occasions.

Side by side dining rooms were on either side of the hall. I chuckled, imagining dinner conversations with the likes of John Muir, Susan B. Anthony and Presidents Hayes and Grant, especially if they were all at the table at the same time. The Bidwells were long time proponents of both women's suffrage and prohibition. I suspect the table talk was quite lively at times. I found the openness of the rooms and lack of clutter refreshing. While the furnishings were of high quality, the mansion did not scream "look at me, I have money!" Art work was minimal, and much of what there was were gifts from friends. Instead, John Bidwell chose to install indoor plumbing, gas lighting and water systems. Every bedroom had a sink with running water. I found his pragmatism appealing.

Occasionally an item was found lying around the mansion that was not actually a part of the decor. So, I assumed the cheesy fake palm trees on the stair platforms must be from some recent private event. But in fact, they are part of the original furnishings. Our guide likened it to decor from the 1970s... fads that are now considered tacky but seemed fun at the time.

The second floor holds the master bedroom as well as several guest rooms. The third floor was originally to be a ballroom. John Bidwell built the mansion before meeting his beloved wife. Annie was deeply religious and a devout Presbyterian. Dancing was strictly forbidden. So it was converted Into space for the children of their guests. The Bidwells had no children of their own.

In 1880 the Bidwells donated eight acres of their cherry orchard for a teachers' college, originally called Chico State Normal School. Mrs. Bidwell - surviving her husband - willed her home to her church to be used as a school, but the Presbyterian Church was unable to fund it. The Normal School (now Chico State University) bought it for a dormitory.

The ever lively Chico college students had fun with the bell system set up for the servants, and enjoyed sliding down the banisters. Eventually the house was converted to classrooms and administrative offices - and finally - the polished wooden dance floor on the third story was used for its intended purpose with dance classes.

Before exiting the mansion to stroll the rest of the grounds - including the pink carriage house - we talked with Blair about the park closure. At this writing, the mansion will be closed July 1, 2012, with actual closure to the public a month or two prior to that in order to pack up the furnishings and ship them to a temperature controlled warehouse in Sacramento. Letter writing campaigns, meetings and hopes for fund raising and/or partnerships with non-profits are being looked into, but nothing is in place yet. Like many of California's historic sites, thousands of fourth graders studying California history parade through the mansion annually. Once again it is believed by some that to close the Bidwell Mansion will actually cost more in lost tax revenues than its actual operating expenses.

Reduced hours will commence sometime in autumn, as Chico prepares for the place that was the center of social activity for decades, to close. If you're in the area be sure to visit, but as with any of the State Parks, call first as the hours for many of them are in flux.

I hope to see you at the parks.



  1. I can not imagine this gem being closed off for long. This is one of California's most incredible examples of a respectful families to ever establish here in California. I was fortunately lucky to live in Chico Ca for 10 years and enjoyed my stay probably more than anywhere else that I have stayed in California. This was made possible by Mr. Bidwell. The Bidwell horticultural practices are present in the university at Chico and felt throughout the community as I experienced while I lived in Chico. Chico is an incredible place!

  2. I visited the Bidwell Mansion years ago! So beautiful, a true state treasure!

  3. Looks like locals were able to save the mansion for at least one more year:


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