John Nopel in his home office in Chico in October 2006, surrounded
by his collection of Chico memorabilia, books, and photographs. Photos by
Thomas Del Brase.
Going Back to Sandy Gulch: The John Nopel Story
Chico State Teachers College grad became
a steward of Chico’s heritage
By Stephen Metzger
John Nopel, 1935 graduate of Chico State Teachers College
and pre-eminent if unofficial archivist and historian of Chico
Butte County, died Nov. 16, 2006, at the age of 92. At the time
of his death, Mr. Nopel was working closely with Pam Bush (attended
fall ’74 to fall ’77), library assistant at Meriam
Library at California State University, Chico, to catalogue the
nearly 4,000 pieces—mostly photos, but also newspapers, calendars,
and official documents—in his collection, some of which are
on loan to the library’s Special Collections, where Bush
Chico Senior High School student Kealan
Cronin and I visited Mr. Nopel in his Chico home a week before
he died. —Stephen Metzger
Sept. 16, 1931, was warm but not hot in Chico, the midday high
barely reaching 90 degrees, a breeze out of the northeast having
sent the temperature into the low 50s the night before. It was
opening day of deer season. M. Oser and Co. was offering fur-trimmed
dresses for $29.75, and the Senator Theatre was showing Young Sinners, “a
virile drama of youth and its yearnings.” At Chico High School,
940 students were attending the third day of classes.
At Chico State Teachers College, it was the first day of the fall
semester. The campus, and much of the town, was buzzing about the
10 new faculty members—the news made the front page of that
day’s Chico Record. Seven hundred students had enrolled in
classes, and John Nopel was among them.
This morning, Nov. 9, 2006, Nopel is sitting in his small study
in his home on Chico’s east side near Lindo Channel. A large
man, he seems cramped by the small desk at which he sits, his knees
frequently bumping up against it. He is clearly annoyed by the
walker beside him, but he has recently fallen and needs it to move
from room to room.
Kealan and I are partners in the Chico High Academic Mentorship
Program, begun in 2001 by Chico High English teacher Eric Nilsson
(BA, English, ’88; MA, English, ’90) and currently
administered by Chico High math teacher and Chico City Councilwoman
Mary Flynn (BS, Dietetics, ’84; Credential, ’87). Kealan
is 16. Nopel is 92, today. Kealan has brought Mr. Nopel a birthday
She looks around at the walls of the study, amazed. Behind bookshelves
groaning under the weight of old books and folios, behind framed
certificates and awards—most notably for his work with the
Boy Scouts—and behind ancient beer bottles lining a high
shelf, the walls are papered with 19th-century maps of various
parts of California, a large print of Ishi, children’s Crayola
art, and pages from old newspapers (a 1931 Chico High Red and Gold
and a 1933 Chico State Wildcat). There’s also an article
from a 1940 Chico Record announcing Nopel’s marriage to Pheleita
(Penny) Porter. On a desk in the corner is a primitive word processor,
and an open closet door reveals large file cabinets, against one
of which leans a battered banjo case.
Nopel pulls a photo from a neat stack, cradles it in his large
hands, and then sets it on the desk, turning it so Kealan can see.
Some 40 schoolchildren pose on steps in front of an old wooden
building. “See that kid in the bow tie?” Nopel asks
Kealan, pointing a long, weathered finger. “That’s
me. 1920. The old Chico Vecino school.” He takes it back,
looks at it again for a moment, and shakes his head softly.
“John was famous among local historians and genealogists
as an indispensable source of information,” says Michael
Magliari, CSU, Chico history professor and co-author, with Professor
of John Bidwell and California: The Life and Writings of a
Pioneer, 1841–1900 (A.H. Clark Company, 2004). “And, of course,
for historic Butte County photographs. His private collection is
absolutely amazing, and John was always very generous in sharing
his photos with local researchers. He was a great help to Mike
Gillis and me when we were doing the research for our biography
of John Bidwell.”
Pam Bush agrees. “He was a generous lecturer and historian,
with a closet filled with over 30 slideshows given to decades of
schoolchildren and community groups. He was much more than a hobbyist.
He was a steward of Chico’s visual heritage.”
Bush began helping Nopel organize and identify photos in July 2006,
with funding from a Deering Endowment grant and with help from
John’s son David and granddaughter Allison (currently a junior
in art education at CSU, Chico), as well as Allison’s friend
Caitlin Calhoon. “The collection is incredibly rare and significant,” says
Bush, “one of the most unique of any I have seen in over
25 years of working with historical images.” They could only
get through one file drawer, which contained hundreds of images,
and had several more drawers to go. “And then,” she
says, sighing softly, “we were going to get to the negatives
and slides.” Bush, David, and Bill Jones, head of Special
Collections, will continue to identify and catalogue as many of
the pieces as they can.
Nopel is thrilled to learn that Kealan’s stepfather owns
Tres Hombres restaurant at the corner of 1st and Broadway. Constructed
in 1860, the building the restaurant occupies was originally John
Bidwell’s office and later Chico’s second post office.
It also housed Kilpatric’s Groceteria, Chico’s first
grocery store, “where you actually got to pick out your items
yourself,” says Nopel, “instead of telling someone
behind a counter what you wanted.” Nopel worked at Kilpatric’s
in the late 1920s and early 1930s.
Nopel is suddenly animated. “Have you ever been down in the
basement?” he asks.
Kealan shrugs. “Sure … a few times.”
“You’re lucky!” says Nopel, leaning forward and
grasping the corner of the desktop with both hands. “Not
many people have.”
He pauses for a moment, as if waiting for clarity, then continues. “Have
you seen the hidden door?”
Kealan looks at me. “Hidden door?”
“The basements of all the stores along that block used to
be connected. You could walk all the way from the basement of Kilpatric’s
to the basement of Price’s Candy Store [now Cold Stone Creamery].
There was a dance hall down there.” He pauses again, then
smiles. “I spent many hours down there. We’d get tired
from working and then say, ‘Let’s get a couple of girls
and go down to Price’s.’ ”
Several weeks later, I run into Kealan’s stepfather, Mike,
in downtown Chico. “No,” he says, smiling and shaking
his head, “those doors were all sealed off long ago.”
(Top) On March 3, 1929, Masons from Chico Lodge No. 111 performed the ceremony for the
placing of the cornerstone of the new Chico State College administration building (Kendall Hall).
(Bottom) A mid-1940s parade on Main Street, looking north from Third Street, with J.C. Penney at Second and Main. Photos courtesy John Nopel Collection.
Nopel traces his Chico-area roots to 1865, when his grandfather
on his mother’s side, Hugh Thomas Bell, moved to Butte City.
In the late 1880s, Nopel’s paternal grandfather, suffering
from tuberculosis, moved west from Missouri at the suggestion of
In 1889, Nopel’s grandparents arrived in Forest Ranch and
bought 80 acres from Union Pacific Railroad for $5 an acre, “which
they thought was reasonable,” says Nopel, and on which they
built a small log cabin. Today, the main drag—such as it
is—through Forest Ranch is Nopel Avenue.
John Nopel was actually born in Los Angeles in 1914, first coming
to Chico in 1919, when his father, John Sr., bought a small grocery
store on the Esplanade between 2nd and 3rd avenues and moved the
family in upstairs. Today, the space is occupied by the Red Tavern
restaurant. Eventually, the family moved into the house next door
(now Honey Run Quilters).
The year the Nopels moved to Chico, John Jr. entered first grade
at Chico Vecino School, at the corner of 4th and Oleander. After
sixth grade, Nopel transferred to Central School, site of the current
Meriam Library, and then, in 1927, enrolled at Chico High School,
where he was active in theatre and journalism, working on the Red
and Gold student newspaper. His junior and senior years, he worked
at Kilpatric’s every Saturday, 7 am–9 pm, for $4.60
In 1935, with a degree in education from Chico State Teachers College,
Nopel was hired to teach fifth and sixth grades in Anderson. He
stayed for three years before enrolling at UC Berkeley, where in
1938 he met Penny, originally from Ord Bend. In 1940 he earned
a master’s degree. He taught in Alameda from 1941 to 1946,
when he and Penny returned to Chico to raise their two children,
Janet (BA, Education; Credential, ’63) and David (BS, Business
Administration, ’70). Their third child, Robert (BA, Psychology, ’69),
was born in Chico shortly after they returned. From 1948 to 1950,
Nopel served as the first principal of Hooker Oak Elementary School.
Beginning in 1950, Nopel worked as assistant superintendent of
Chico City Schools and then as associate superintendent of Butte
County Schools until he retired in 1976. After retiring—no
surprise here—he remained busy, working with his photo collections,
doing presentations for schoolchildren and historical groups, and
teaching history part time at Butte Community College. In 1994,
he was inducted into the Chico Public Education Hall of Fame.
Nopel’s interest in historic Chico was sparked when he worked
at Northern Star Mills from 1947 to 1948. Older Chicoans would
come by the feed store and share their recollections and give him
photos, marking the beginning of his archives. Recently, Nopel
made his large collection of historical photographs of Chico available
for the book Images of America: Chico (Arcadia Publishing, 2005),
whose primary author is alum Edward Booth (’92). Nopel’s
photos were augmented by images from the Butte County Historical
Society archives, overseen by professor emeritus Keith Johnson,
and modern-day photos by alum Darcy Davis (’82).
Throughout his life, Nopel was dedicated to public service and
was active in many local and national organizations, including
the Butte County Historical Society, the American Association of
School Administrators, the National Association of School Business
Officials, the Northern California Elementary Administrators Association,
and the California State University, Chico chapter of Phi Delta
Kappa, of which he was a founder and first president.
Nopel was very active in Bidwell Presbyterian Church, and he was
the head of the citizens’ group to organize and fund the
new Chico branch of the Butte County Library on First Avenue. He
was also on the Bidwell Mansion Board of Directors and was active
in the Boy Scouts of America. In 1949, he served as president of
the Chico State Alumni Association.
But Nopel isn’t talking about that today. He’s talking
about old Chico, about his days as a child playing along the banks
of Lindo Channel, which, he emphasizes, is really called Sandy
Gulch. “What a great place to play,” he says. “We’d
go down there after school, dig holes in the bank, and just hide
from the world.” He leans back in his office chair, then
repeats the words: “Sandy Gulch.” The words hang in
the air for a moment, as though signifying far more than a star-thistled
diversion channel. “A great place for a child.”
Then there’s that pause again, as if searching for a cloth
to take to memory’s window. “You know,” he says,
finally, returning to us. “There’s just too daggone
many cars these days. I wish we didn’t have to get rid of
“Streetcars?” says Kealan.
“Oh, yes. And the railroad. I could ride from my house to
downtown or out to Diamond Match, or up the Esplanade out over
Gulch Bridge. For a nickel.”
Kealan, soon to graduate from Chico High and head off to see the
world, had asked me earlier if it would be OK to ask Mr. Nopel
if he had any regrets about living almost his whole life in Chico.
As if on cue, Nopel leans forward again, looks hard at Kealan,
and says, “Don’t ever sell yourself short.”
Kealan looks puzzled.
“I went to Chicago once,” he says. “In the early
1950s, for a national school convention. It was a big deal for
boy from the sticks. Anyway, the meetings were at a big hotel and
always went late. One night I got tired and wandered out into a
hallway, and I could hear music coming from a doorway. I stuck
my head in, and there was a dance, all these people in gowns and
tuxedos, some sitting at tables, some dancing. I went over to where
two or three girls were sitting, and I asked one to dance. She
said yes, but the whole time she wouldn’t even talk to me.
I guess I wasn’t good enough for her.” Nopel laughs,
looks at Kealan. “That taught me,” he says, “that
Chico’s good enough.” His clouded eyes twinkle. “And
you know what, I’ll take a Chico girl over a Chicago girl
It’s nearly time to leave. Kealan and I have been here more
than two hours, and the birthday boy has the whole afternoon ahead
of him. Nopel grasps the walker’s aluminum frame and pulls
himself up, then follows us down the hallway—nearly covered
in framed historical photos—to the front door. “Look,” he
says, pointing into the living room, where Penny stands watching
and a dozen or more balloons are taped to the walls and fireplace. “The
He looks back at Kealan, and then his large hand takes hers. “I’m
so glad you came along,” he says. “Really glad. Thank
Kealan smiles, wishes him a happy birthday, and we head down the
path toward the street, turning once to see him waving from the
doorway. She waves back, and I walk her to her car, which she has
parked not far from Sandy Gulch.