By Tyler Ash
In a past not too long ago, bigotry and bordellos could be found on every street corner in the American West, and Northern California’s City of Chico was no exception. In fact, one house on the corner of W. Third Street and Ivy Street was home to both intolerance and “intimacy” throughout its history, particularly one racist news editor and some female flesh vendors later on.
A large amount of Chico’s history has been recorded namely through its newspapers, which have either died or consolidated through the ages. But the editor of the Chico Record, George H. Crosette, became one of the most colorful characters in local history through his racist editorials, commitment to the “working man” and especially for his initial spark during the racial powder keg of Chico’s Anti-Chinese Movement.
The George Crosette House, mysteriously nicknamed “The Bakery,” was built in 1871, making it one of the oldest residences currently standing in Chico. It was bought by George Crosette, the owner and editor of the Butte Record in Oroville, which eventually evolved into today’s Chico Enterprise Record in 1948.
Crosette traded his ranch and hotel in Oroville to C.W. Stiles, owner and publisher of the Butte Record. Then in 1873, he moved to Chico with his newspaper and purchased the Chico Chronicle, combining the two into the Chico Morning Chronicle-Record, according to Debra Moon’s “Chico: Life and Times of a City of Fortune.”
During his time as editor, Crosette used his public status to display his racist opinions on the Native American, Jewish, African-American and Chinese populations in Butte County.
“He was quite a character,” said John Gallardo of the Chico Heritage Association, a local non-profit preservation group. “He was anti- anybody who wasn’t white Anglo-Saxon protestant.”
His articles spread hate and incited violence toward minorities in the area.
“In some of his newspaper articles as editor he would slam the Jewish people in Oroville,” Gallardo said. “It’s embarrassing to read it. I squirm when I read what he was writing.”
His anti-Semitic editorials offended the Jewish businessmen in Oroville, which was most likely the reason why Crosette moved to Chico.
According to a 1936 article of The Chico Record, a journalist going by the name of “Old Timer” recalls two incidents of Crosette getting into brawls where he was beaten with canes on Second Street by some of the people he publicly defamed in his column. One of the cane wielders was a competing newspaper editor, who caused Crosette to go “to a drug store to have an eye patched up.”
“It was worse when he was in Oroville than when he came to Chico as editor,” Gallardo said. “But he was just terrible all the way around.”
Michele Shover, local historian and professor emerita of Chico State’s Department of Political Science, has produced many essays concerning the history of minorities in Chico. She has stumbled across the racist remarks and complexities of one of Chico’s most colorful characters by perusing through countless scans of his newspaper issues.
“I would think he was a man that I would stay away from because he was very quirky and he could turn on anybody in an instant,” she said. “But at the same time that I am shocked and horrified by his characterization of people who are really innocent and hard-pressed, I also have a respect for him because he always stood up for the working man.”
She affirmed that Crosette was right at the center of understanding what was going on in Chico at that time.
“John Bidwell was a lot of times colliding with the town on issues, and Crosette would always stand up for what the people wanted,” Shover said. “He was pretty reliable that way and he was also a very colorful writer, so he had a really good following.”
Crosette was a Northern Democrat, an old Jacksonian Democrat from Michigan to be precise. Back in Michigan his views rubbed up against the Whig party’s, but in Chico his views reflected an even split between the townspeople’s. He embodied values that working people should have the right to make decent wages and that politicians should have more respect for them, values that are still in trouble today, Shover said.
In Shover’s book, “Exploring Chico’s Past…And Other Essays,” she mentions that “George Crosette was one of the most influential figures in Chico history,” and remarked that “he was better educated than most people in town and evinced a ready grasp of literary traditions.” Such a grasp for knowledge and writing ability can become dangerous when in the wrong hands, especially the hands of a racist man who published his own newspaper.
“From his earliest days, he made life hard for blacks in Butte County,” Shover wrote, acknowledging that his prejudices were shared by many of the people during his time.
Once in 1864, Crosette published a report from the Ethnological Society of London, who had a pseudoscientific justification for racist views, confirming “the opinion that the tribes of Africa are incapable of attaining a high degree of civilization… for it was formerly supposed that the degraded condition of the negroes was attributable entirely to slavery and the slave trade.”
Shover suggests that deep down, Crosette feared miscegenation, the intermarriage between races, especially in Chico at that time.
“He relished publicizing the dalliances of mixed race couples,” Shover wrote.
One such occurrence involved a Miss Jennie King, who he described as “seventeen shades darker than printing ink,” who had eloped with one of the local white men.
He wanted to prevent sexual unions such as this from happening because he predicted that they would turn the following generation into “one of mulattoes,” so he opposed giving black men the right to vote. In 1865 Crosette wrote, “Why call in an inferior race to assist in the reconstruction of the Government?”
Crosette was a very eloquent and skilled writer. It’s even rumored that he could compose his articles while laying the type letters in his printing press, without first writing it down and transcribing it later on.
It’s been said that he was somewhat of a loner and he would always be seen writing or setting type in his second story office in the Butte Record Printing House building, which was located at 200 West Second Street, downtown, right above a tobacconist, a telegraph office and a news depot. The building still stands today and is currently occupied by several businesses, between Theodore Brandon’s salon and Lucky’s Tattoo, near El Rey Theatre.
Just to express how articulate—and prejudicial—Crosette was, mull over this statement he made about the African-American race: “Let us not at least descend in the scale of rhetoric to find an ally. The facial angle indicative of intelligence in the animal creation, is as far removed in the African from the American, as that of the African is from the Ourang Outang.”
But Crosette isn’t always that easy to interpret. He was a complex individual, as Shover exemplifies in her book, saying that although he publically defamed African-Americans on a regular basis, “his powerful sentiment once produced an outpouring of nearly a column’s length in which he mourned the death of ‘old Ben Malbone,’” a 60-year-old black shoe shiner on Second Street below his newspaper office.
Crosette hired Malbone on the side for nearly ten years to do lifting and hauling in his pressroom. He noticed some similarities between Malbone and himself, mainly that they were both loners, unusually intelligent compared to their fellow Chicoans, and they were both drinkers.
During the mid-1870s, unemployment rates were skyrocketing due to a Depression, hitting white Chico men the hardest. Crosette directed a lot of his attention and energy into the local crisis, becoming a champion of the “working-man” and calling for the disposal of Chinese workers in Chico, who worked for much less than the white men and women would at that time.
“He was a troubled person,” Shover said. “He was the only voice that poor people had in public, and he was much resented for that and made fun of.”
In Richard Steven Street’s “Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers,” Street wrote that Crosette was a malicious leader against the local Chinese population. In fact, he was even the president of the Anti-Chinese League.
Crosette gave updates of Chico’s Chinese “problem” in The Chico Chronicle-Record.
“The Chinese now have possession of the large majority of the orchards about Chico,” he wrote, also spreading rumors that “300 coolies will be brought to Chico to do the work this year that has heretofore been done by white people,” making it clear that the local harvest would be done by mostly non-white laborers for the first time in Chico’s history.
“He didn’t have any sense of the Chinese as being human beings,” Shover said. “None of them did.”
According to Michael J. Gillis and Michael F. Magliari’s “John Bidwell & California,” soon after Crosette’s newspaper article, a crowd of 1,300 Chicoans met on May 10, 1894 to denounce the “coolie invaders,” resulting in the formation of the Chico Anti-Chinese League, who formed an employment bureau to register job-seeking whites and blacks who were willing to replace Asian workers. They urged local employers to hire from their list of workers, and John Bidwell’s Rancho Chico was one of the businesses that the bureau targeted.
Bidwell employed about a dozen Chinese laborers to tend his orchards, and even rented out some of his orchards to Chinese tenants. He told the bureau that he preferred white laborers over the Chinese, but there was a lack of whites that wanted to work in his orchards so he had to use Chinese labor.
His responses didn’t calm the public’s anti-Chinese opinions because large numbers of Chinese immigrants continued to arrive in town with Rancho Chico being their main destination.
Crosette was not anti-Bidwell, but he opposed a lot of the things Bidwell stood for.
In one of his editorials in the summer of 1894, he wrote that “the people here are at fever heat on this Chinese question. The matter has reached that shape where only a spark is needed to make serious trouble…. There is a storm brewing,… whether it shall be calmed now or grow into a tempest that will sweep everything before it is a matter for the employers of Chinese labor to decide, and they want to decide it quickly.”
Local members of the “Order of Caucasians” were roused by the article and threatened to kill Bidwell and chase the workers off of his ranch. They burned his soap factory, his carpenter shop and hay barn and issued him a terrorizing letter:
“Sir, you are given notice to discharge your Mongolian help within ten days, or suffer the consequences,” the note said.
Bidwell wrote habitually in his diary, which has provided current generations with a firsthand account of nearly every major historical event in Chico during his time.
“Almost every man in Chico received anonymous letters that if he did not discharge his Chinese his property would be burned.” Bidwell wrote in his diary in 1877. “The first thing I did was to telegraph to S.F. for ten Winchester rifles.”
After Bidwell refused their demands, the insurgents set fire to the ranch of Mrs. Patrick, a widow who lived nearby who had leased her orchard and garden to Chinese tenants.
The tenants tried to put out the fire but they were shot at and driven off the property, Street said in his book. They lost their home, their belongings, as well as six horses that were burned alive in the barn.
When the Chinese population heard of what was happening, they bought every shotgun and six shooter in stock at a local hardware store, Shover said.
The Anti-Chinese sentiment in Chico turned into violence, especially during the March of 1877. Both of Chico’s Chinatowns were set on fire, as well as the occurrence of one of Butte County’s worst racial offenses in its history, the Lemm Ranch Murders, where six masked men went into the cabin of some sleeping Chinese laborers and killed five of them instantly, with revolvers pointed at their rested heads.
“There was much excitement against the Chinese, but that crime roused the good people,” Bidwell wrote in his diary that year.
Soon after the night of the infamous murders, a committee was appointed to track down the six killers. The manhunt resulted in the arrest of each murderer and they were sent to the penitentiary, Bidwell wrote.
After the Lemm Ranch Murders Crosette realized that it had all gone too far, Shover said. The City of Chico had become infested by the Anti-Chinese influence, mainly due to his racist columns, and it was too late before he realized what he had caused.
What is now known locally as the “George Crosette House” was remodeled by Crosette in 1883 and it has been remodeled twice since then, so it would be hard to tell what it originally looked like, said Verda Mackay, the writer of the “History Minute” program on KCHO North State Public Broadcasting.
Mackay referred to a 1984 Chico Heritage Association brochure of the Crosette House circa 1871, calling the one and a half story, multigabled house “a perfect bijou of a cottage.” An old mounting stone bearing Crosette’s name is still in front of the house. He would have used the stone to step up onto his horse or carriage during that time.
In a 1987 article of a short-lived local publication, the Chico Press Gazette, journalist Steve Schroth wrote that the mounting stone was given to Crosette by Augustus H. Chapman, the administrator of Folsom Prison and a pioneer of the Butte area, noting that the granite block was “quarried and engraved by the inmates at Folsom Prison.”
As of today, the granite testament to Crosette’s prejudiced legacy has been plastered with graffiti, transforming his name and history into a scribbled stain on the Ivy Street curb. You could walk by it and never know it was there.
There are rumors that the cottage was once a “house of ill repute” and a part of Chico’s red light district during the 1900s.
“Honestly, I don’t know much about it but I think it used to be a brothel,” said Mindy Lewis, the daughter of current owner Norma Meier, whose family bought and restored the house in the ’70s. (Take out or cut down)
Crosette owned the house for nine years, according to Schroth, and after the house was sold to several different people it “eventually became a small bawdy-house, attested to by neighbors who witnessed frequent visits to its front door.”
In Schroth’s article titled “The House of Ill Repute,” he mentions an account of the house by Mrs. Nancy Stewart, who graduated from Chico Normal School in 1918 and died in her 90s about 15 years ago. She lived with her father in the house across the street as a child, and remembered “recognizing a lot of gentlemen from town, merchants, who would visit the house” dressed in their Sunday best. She eventually learned about what was really going on in “The Bakery” from her neighborhood friends.
“It was all very hush-hush at the time… it was not talked about,” she said.
Her father, Richard White, was a local municipal judge at that time and she remembered that he was influential in the removal of the “ladies of the evening” to a different location.
Before the prostitutes resided in the house, Mrs. Stewart recalled that they had set up shop in a in a house on Wall Street between Second and Third Streets, “before being ‘shooed’ away, eventually relocating to ‘The Bakery,’” according to Schroth’s article.
“That means more to me than anything I’ve heard,” Shover said, “because in the first place she would never create that story because that was high-toned family and nobody would say that a brothel is sitting in your neighborhood.”
Getting factual documentation that the house was indeed a brothel has proven difficult for the Chico Heritage Association, Gallardo said.
“When we were doing research on it back in the early ’80s, we heard some stories but we could never pin anything down,” he said. “It’s sort of like the place is haunted, there’s stories about it but you can’t get some facts on it.”
Even the legend of its nickname, “The Bakery,” has escaped historical records. One theory is that it was called that so the local gentry would be able to get away from their wives by telling them, “Honey, I’m headed off to the bakery. I’ll be back in an hour,” when in fact they were going to call on one of Chico’s ladies of the evening in the local bordello.
“Maybe the term ‘bakery’ is an old time connotation for a cathouse,” Gallardo said.
Today, the house is inhabited by Chico State students, including Bare Mathauser, a construction management major who mentioned the house’s red windows.
“The windows in the front door are red,” he said. “So the light from the inside makes them look like they light up red.”
His roommate, Ryan Fletcher, an entrepreneurship major, said that they went along with “the whole brothel thing.”
“We have the lights on the inside and at night from the outside it looks like it’s glowing red,” he said. “It’s kind of cool.”
The residence that once housed prejudice and procreation is now a simple house, whose history has been passed over just like Crosette’s mounting stone. It’s a standing witness to the sinful times of Chico’s past, and testament to why the events it once lodged should still be frowned upon. Crosette’s legacy as a prolific but bigoted writer epitomized the power of the written word, which in the wrong hands can cause upheavals that the writer may not even intend. His life illustrates every reason journalistic integrity should be valued in all forms of public writing, because it is the truth that matters most, not personal bias.