A Tour of Rancho Chico in 1883

Fullscreen capture 352018 81423 PMIn 1883 Thomas Kirkland Dow, Australian journalist, set out to visit the United States and report on agricultural practices to the readers of his magazine, The Australasian. His book, A Tour in America, was published in Melbourne in 1884.

After arriving in San Francisco, Dow proceeded to the Sacramento Valley to observe best practices at three outstanding locations. The three ranches he visited were Dr. Hugh Glenn’s enormous wheat farm in what was then Colusa County (now Glenn County), former Governor Leland Stanford’s vineyard at Vina, and General John Bidwell’s Rancho Chico.

Mr. Dow was decidedly impressed with Bidwell’s ranch, writing, “The estate of General J. Bidwell has the reputation of being the most interesting and the best-conducted farm in California.”

He commends General Bidwell for being one of those “landowners who do not sacrifice everything to the immediate making of money.” for Bidwell, “while seeking to work his estate at a profit, values some things in the world more highly than money.”

Not only have the natural beauties of the country been preserved, but the gold derived from its productiveness have been expended upon developing and increasing the pleasing appearance of the estate. The property of 25,000 acres is like a group of delightful parks, and one drives for hours in every direction along charming avenues, past farm-houses, orchards, vineyards, grain-fields, and pastures, among browsing cattle and sheep, and seeing busy fruit-gatherers as well as quickly-moving harvesting machinery, without ever losing the sense of rural beauty.

sc10658Almond Orchard, Bidwell Ranch
ca 1895

Almond orchard on Rancho Chico

Dow was overwhelmed with the beauty and variety he found on Rancho Chico, and describes the “winding carriage-ways,” the fields of grain, the vineyards, orchards, animal-raising operations, the nursery, the flour mill, fruit drying operation, the canning factory, and more. He was especially impressed with “the experimental plots, where there are some forty different kinds of cereals grown under various conditions of agriculture.”

He was well taken care of during his short stay. General and Mrs. Bidwell fed him on “ice-crowned heaps of strawberries and cherries” at breakfast and took him on “delightful driving excursions along endless miles of avenues formed of planted trees or cut out of the natural forest.”

General Bidwell ran his ranch like a well-organized corporation:

There are managers in charge of the different departments, and overseers under the managers ; and the General has been able to organize matters so as to relieve himself of much personal supervision. There are five gentlemen in charge of sections, who constitute a kind of board of management, with the general as president. Thus there are the head bookkeeper, the miller, the manager of the vineyards and orchards, the manager of the agricultural branch, and the manager of the stock. These gentlemen meet in General Bidwell’s office every Monday morning, and oftener if needful, and discuss whatever business there is to be dealt with, and whatever is agreed upon is carried out by each individual.


The flour mill, with water tower in background

Dow gives detailed description of operations on the ranch, with statistics on the number of barrels of flour ground per day, the quantity of sheep, hogs, and cattle, and the depth (20 to 70 feet) at which water can be obtained.

If you want a farmer’s-eye view of functions on Rancho Chico when it was running at full capacity, Dow’s book is a good place to start. The entire book can be downloaded from Google Books.

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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