“Hi, this is Lana Johnson from Chico California, and I would like to know the history of the Miller Mansion. Is the property significant in Chico history? And who exactly were the Millers?”
Thanks Lana, I’ve often wondered about that stately building framed by columns on somewhat storybook grounds.
Yes, the Miller Mansion property is quite significant to Chico history, the house, less so. And the Millers? Well, hold on.
For the building’s background, I headed for the most logical repository for such information, the local planning office. There, I met Leo DePaola, Chico’s community development director.
The file he pulled revealed little. The oldest document referred to $4,000 in repairs after a 1980 "equipment fire." DePaola said the thin documentation isn’t unusual, as original plans might have been just a page or two and easily misplaced over the decades.
“Am I surprised? Not really. I mean, I’m surprised there was no plans, but beyond that I’m not surprised by the level of, of, how thick the file is,” he said.
To dig further back, I headed for the Special Collections desk at Chico State’s Merriam Library. The fine people there quickly dug up a 1994 inventory by Dawn Yeager prepared for the National Register of Historic Places.
Turns out the Miller Mansion isn’t particularly historic.
According to local amateur historian, John Gallardo people think both the grounds and mansion are historic.
“The combination has intrigued people in Chico since I think it was…the current structure, since it was built,” he said.
Did you catch that? The current structure? That’s because the home you see today is actually the third on a property once known as Five Oaks Ranch, B and R Ranch, the Reed Mansion and the Daniel Bidwell House – all of these names coming before the place was ever associated with the Miller family.
Bidwell. There’s that historic name of Chico's founder, John Bidwell, who is associated with more than a few area landmarks, and is still locally revered.
Daniel Bidwell was John Bidwell’s half-brother and once owner of the Miller Mansion. Turns out, two weeks prior to the Civil War’s outbreak, Daniel Bidwell purchased the home from John. It was destroyed by fire seven years later.
A near replica rose in its place shortly thereafter, described as Italianate-style with French Second Empire flourishes.
The mansion housed several generations of Bidwells before finally changing hands in 1954. Within months of that purchase it was sold again, this time to Roy and Artie Miller. The story goes that the Millers planned a restoration of the building to its former glory, but wound up demolishing it and building the home that stands there today sometime between 1956 and 1958.
Gallardo said that in the early 1980s he struck up a conversation with the Millers at a fundraiser for the historic Stansbury Home and was told the following about why they decided to start over instead of restore.
“They were advised by several contractors in the area, who were noted people, that the cost, because there was termite damage and there’d been a fire, the cost to bring it up to what they wanted would have been not astronomical, but just about," he said.
Gallardo said the Millers told him they did save some of the original mansion and incorporated it into their new home – the fireplace mantles and some trim.
As for the question: "Who exactly were the Millers?" Well, they were the owners and operators of a local grocery empire. Miller’s Market once boasted five Chico locations according to old city directories. Several old timers recalled shops in Orland, Corning and Willows as well. Gallardo said the grocery chain was sold in 1972.
Longtime residents fondly recall the Millers. More than once I was told the holiday season hasn’t been quite the same without their spectacular Christmas lights at the mansion.
After the Millers passed, the home changed hands again in the '90s and recently it and its 3.2 acre grounds went on sale once again for a cool $1.3 million.