Not many people in Chico are aware of the small area of trees and grass called Mercer Grove that’s located off of East 10th Avenue and East Lindo Avenue. It's a place that can actually be seen perfectly well from Mangrove Avenue, if you know where to look.
Ken Edson, a Chico local, pointed out Mercer Grove to North State Public Radio and wanted to know the story behind it. Edson said he drives by the trees often to bypass some of the city's busier streets.
So I went to find some answers for Ken.
The first thing I did was go straight to the site. When I got there nothing really stood out except for the “Mercer Grove” sign and another sign from the City of Chico Parks Department.
I figured they were the ones in charge of upkeep so I contacted them and got in touch with Shane Romain who is the Parks Services Coordinator.
“It’s named Mercer Grove after Gene Mercer, a local game warden here for a long time, from the early 1900s really, up until the sixties and seventies he was active,” Romain said.
Gene Mercer was not a name I was familiar with so I asked Romain what he knew of Mercer.
“Gene Mercer, what I know of him is just reading the book, ‘Sabertooth,’ quite the incredible man, a very very dedicated game warden for several years,” Romain said. “Made his name in Butte County especially as being a guy that was out there doing his job 24/7. Very passionate, fair and not someone you wanted to tangle with apparently.”
Now I wanted to read the book, so I got a copy from Meriam Library at Chico State as soon as I could.
The full name of the book was ‘Sabertooth: The Rip-Roaring Adventures of a Legendary Game Warden’ written by Terry Hodges.
Hodges was the next person I wanted to speak to since he seemed to know the most about Mercer, but finding him was a challenge.
It took me a couple weeks before I was able to contact him, but the wait was worth it. Hodges, a former game warden himself was eager to talk.
One of the things I wanted to know about Mercer was how Hodges met him.
“He was someone that was famous among game wardens and as a new game warden I started hearing stories about Gene Mercer,” Hodges said. “They were always intriguing stories and he was just in a class by himself when it came to protecting wildlife.”
My favorite story from the book was when Mercer and two fellow game wardens were chasing three illegal market-hunters, who would make money off of their kills. One of these hunters was Snake McVey, who Mercer had tangled with in the past. McVey got his nickname from his “odd serpent-like eyes.”
In this story McVey and his cohort Reggie Straight were transporting illegal amounts of dead ducks by car to the Bay Area to sell when Mercer found them and a high-speed car chase ensued.
McVey and Straight would drive their car through orchards knocking down the crops just to get away from Mercer. They immediately knew it was Mercer chasing them when the patrol car drove after them through the orchards.
Mercer caught McVey when he tried to escape on foot. The first thing Mercer said to McVey after realizing who he caught was a sly “Good evenin’, Snake.”
Stories like this is what drew Hodges to write the book.
“I started taking notes when I was on patrol with him and I started recording a lot of these stories just in rough note form and I thought someday I can get these to an author and he can write a book about Mercer,” Hodges said. “Never in my wildest dreams did I think it would be me.”
After Hodges the book was published in 1988, Mercer became a “local celebrity” according to Hodges.
But what about the grove? At this point, I knew a lot about Mercer, but still needed to find more about how the grove came into being. Luckily, Hodges had answers for that as well.
“Mercer had some other admirers that I think were in city government in Chico or county government,” Hodges said. “They came up with the idea of Mercer Grove.”
Hodges said he doesn’t remember their names, but they did all the research and found the location for Mercer Grove.
“There were several speakers including myself,” Hodges said. “We had this ceremony and this was after Gene had passed away. So that put it somewhere in the very late ‘80s.”
Hodges said the condition of the grove hasn’t been the same since it was commemorated, but he’s happy it’s getting recognition again.
“I’m delighted that someone is taking an interest in it now,” Hodges said.
So, there you have it Ken. Mercer Grove is named after Gene Mercer, a game warden, local wildlife hero and the subject of an adventurous book.