If you have attended an event at Bidwell Mansion in the last few years, you may have been lucky enough to see some dramatic vignettes performed inside the Mansion.
These short dramas are all based on actual historical accounts — letters, diaries, interviews. I have written most of them, and even performed in them, usually as Florence the cook, who had an ongoing feud with a young woman named Ruby English, Annie Bidwell’s maid in the last years of Annie’s life.
Our little drama is based on the “Recollections of Ruby English as Mrs. Annie E. K. Bidwell’s Maid, 1914-1918,” an oral history interview done in 1964, five years before Mrs. English’s death. I was introduced to this story a few years ago by Susie Zimmer, who knew that it contained some good stories that we could use for our vignettes at Bidwell Mansion.
Soon you will be able to read Ruby English’s account yourself, because it will be published this fall in a compilation of oral histories by the Association for Northern California Historical Research.* These interviews are fascinating accounts of bygone days by people from all walks of life. The upcoming publication will have six or seven accounts on a variety of topics. There is bound to be one that will catch your fancy!
In preparing this oral history for publication, I realized an important aspect that goes entirely unmentioned in the account itself.
Ruby Daily English was African-American. It never comes up in the interview, simply because it was obvious. At the time the interview was done, she was well-known in the community; now 53 years later, few people know who she was. Susie and I certainly didn’t. It was only by looking at census records for more information on her that I figured out her race.
I wish I had a photograph of her, but I can’t find one. I did find a photo of her brother Cliff Devinger, who was also popular and well-known in Chico. More about him some other time.
Knowing that Ruby was black casts a new light on her troubles with the cook. Florence didn’t want to serve her cream with her coffee, or give her a piece of the special cakes she baked. She resented the fact that Ruby and her husband were now occupying the upstairs servants’ rooms that had once been hers. She finally left Bidwell Mansion rather than come to terms with the maid, whom she considered an upstart and a usurper.
I hope you will want to read ANCHR’s anthology of oral histories when it becomes available later this year. If you are interested in the African-American experience in Chico, look for another publication by ANCHR: Michele Shover’s Blacks in Chico, 1860-1935: Climbing the Slippery Slope.
*ANCHR is a non-profit organization which was originally founded to rescue and provide access to historical records in Butte County. Its purpose currently is to promote the publication of historical accounts pertaining to northern California. ANCHR assists authors, edits publications, and makes them available to the community.