The Bidwell museum in Chico is free, but is open limited days/hours. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

If it weren’t for John and Annie Bidwell, Chico likely would not be the city that it is.

Panel after panel, exhibit after exhibit explores these early California pioneers who transformed this swath of Northern California into an agriculture oasis, with a university, and city park that rivals some state parks.

While their mansion in Chico is open for tours for a small fee, the museum at the visitors center is free. Both are part of the California State Parks system. The mansion and property near downtown have been part of State Parks since 1964.

Four of us intended to tour the house (reservations not allowed), but the tours were full on the day we showed up. So, we spent some time in the museum.

For those who want to find out more about the Bidwells without seeing the inside of their former residence, there is plenty to see and read at the museum. You are bound to leave with a better understanding of the Bidwells and Chico, at least the early years.

One panel says, “In 1841, what became known as the Bidwell-Bartleson Party became the first American emigrants to attempt a wagon crossing from Missouri to California.”

John Bidwell, center, was one of California’s pioneers. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Bidwell was in the House of Representatives from 1865-67, where he voted for the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment.

Agriculture is one of his larger local legacies. He was the first president of the California Farmers’ Union.

“Rather than focus solely on profits from winter wheat, John operated Rancho Chico as an experimental farm. Bidwell helped establish crops that later became staples of California agriculture, including almonds, walnuts, raisins, and fruit trees. At one point, John was growing over 400 varieties of food on his farm,” the museum says.

John Bidwell died at age 80 in 1900.

Annie Bidwell was a force in her own right. She was part of the suffragist movement and is who donated the land for Bidwell Park.

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