Who Was Frances Willard and Why Does Chico Have a Street Named for Her?

Between Bidwell Mansion and Chico High School is a street named Frances Willard Avenue. It’s a short residential street in the area known as Mansion Park, and runs two blocks west of The Esplanade and one block east.

Frances Willard was an educator, reformer, and prominent member of the women’s rights movement of the 19th century. She was nationally known and respected as founder and long-time president of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union. Annie Bidwell considered her both a dear friend and a visionary leader.frances_willard

Frances Willard was born in 1839, the same year as Annie Bidwell. She was the first dean of women at Northwestern University. After leaving her post at the university she devoted herself to the cause of temperance and women’s suffrage. Elected president of the WCTU in 1879, she continued in as its leader until her death in 1898.

Her slogan was “Do Everything” and she carried it out in a tireless program of promotion, publication, lectures, lobbying, and education. Although prohibition of alcohol was her main focus, she and the W.T.C.U. also stood for labor reform (the 8-hour day), prison reform, and Christian socialism.

I cannot find any indication that she ever visited Chico, even though she made a lecture tour to California in 1883. Annie certainly would have met with her in San Francisco or Sacramento while she lectured in those cities, but the newspapers that I’ve checked don’t report any visit or lecture in Chico.

In his diary entry for May 17, 1892 John Bidwell noted “Wife was in Chicago today and took tea with Miss Willard.”

Miss Willard (she never married) died of influenza in 1898. Annually after her death the Chico branch of the W.T.C.U. held a memorial service in her honor in Bidwell Mansion. The Chico newspaper for February 22, 1907 reported that:

Memorial Exercises in honor of the memory of Frances E. Willard were held at the Bidwell mansion yesterday afternoon, under the auspices of the W.C.T.U. After a period of devotional exercise a program appropriate to the occasion was rendered.

So it is not surprising that when Mansion Park was developed as a residential district, Annie named its primary street after the woman she so admired. There may be other Willard Avenues in the U.S., but as far as I know there is only one with the full name of Frances Willard.

About nancyleek

Nancy is a retired librarian who lives in Chico, California. She is the author of John Bidwell: The Adventurous Life of a California Pioneer.
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One Response to Who Was Frances Willard and Why Does Chico Have a Street Named for Her?

  1. Dianne Donoho says:

    Thanks for this essay on Frances Willard. I always wondered if she ever came to Chico and stayed at the Bidwell Mansion. Thanks for your research! Dianne Donoho

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