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Fall 2005
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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

John Nopel, 1935 graduate of Chico State Teachers College and pre-eminent if unofficial archivist and historian of Chico and 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 works.

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 card.

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 Michael Gillis, 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 doctors.

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 a day.

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 the streetcars.”

“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 the Sandy 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 this country 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 any day.”

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 great-grandkids decorated.”

He looks back at Kealan, and then his large hand takes hers. “I’m so glad you came along,” he says. “Really glad. Thank you.”

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.