Chico Getaway Artist Museums

Colman Museum-Centerville Schoolhouse: Living History

The Col­man Muse­um-Cen­ter­ville School­house flies so under the radar in Butte Coun­ty that it’s unclear what its offi­cial name is.

An online search shows list­ings for the Col­man-Cen­ter­ville School­house, Col­man-Cen­ter­ville Muse­um, and the Cen­ter­ville Muse­um, depend­ing on the source. 

But don’t let the name con­fu­sion trick you into think­ing the muse­um isn’t worth the trip. Vis­i­tors who make the dri­ve up Hon­ey Run Road into Butte Creek Canyon to find the Col­man Muse­um next to the old Cen­ter­ville School­house are reward­ed with a hid­den gem tying the canyon’s deep-root­ed past to its present and future.

The Past

The School­house­’s Begin­nings & Closure

The one-room Cen­ter­ville School­house was built in 1894 and served stu­dents until 1966. There are peo­ple on the Cen­ter­ville Recre­ation and His­tor­i­cal Association’s board — the asso­ci­a­tion in charge of the muse­um — that attend­ed school there. How­ev­er, after the Chico Uni­fied School Dis­trict annexed Cen­ter­ville School in 1964 and start­ed bus­ing stu­dents into town, the school had closed by 1966.

That should have been the end of the sto­ry, but life in The Canyon” is dif­fer­ent. The peo­ple who live there still live in much the same way as the orig­i­nal inhab­i­tants did dur­ing the Gold Rush era. The ameni­ties may have changed, but the strong sense of deter­mi­na­tion, resource­ful­ness, and com­mu­ni­ty haven’t.

Colman Museum-Centerville Schoolhouse: Living History
The Centerville Schoolhouse in 1896

Sav­ing the Cen­ter­ville Schoolhouse

Faced with the prospect of the phys­i­cal loss of their long-time school house as Chico USD con­tem­plat­ed raz­ing it, the peo­ple of Butte Creek Canyon took action. They formed the Cen­ter­ville Recre­ation and His­tor­i­cal Asso­ci­a­tion” (CRHA) for the pur­pose of obtain­ing the his­toric build­ing. Fundrais­ers were held to pur­chase the school and by 1968, the school was back in the pos­ses­sion of the com­mu­ni­ty. Less than a decade lat­er, in 1976, Lois Col­man, grand­daugh­ter of canyon pio­neer D.B. Col­man, donat­ed the prof­its from her book Tail­ings of Butte Creek Canyon to finance the open­ing of the Col­man Memo­r­i­al Com­mu­ni­ty Museum.

Colman Museum-Centerville Schoolhouse: Living History
Tailings of Butte Creek Canyon

The Col­man Muse­um High­lights Community

The word com­mu­ni­ty” in the museum’s offi­cial name is an impor­tant one. Built, saved, and devel­oped by Butte Creek Canyon res­i­dents, the Col­man Muse­um tells the sto­ry not just of the Cen­ter­ville Muse­um, but also the sto­ry of the nation. 

Vis­i­tors learn of the Civ­il War through the sto­ry of vet­er­an Mac Stil­son, who par­tic­i­pat­ed in the cap­ture of Con­fed­er­ate pres­i­dent Jef­fer­son Davis and used his reward mon­ey to buy the land that is now Stil­son Canyon. They learn of the lives of the native tribes that pop­u­lat­ed the coun­try through the per­spec­tive of the Maid­us and oth­er Butte Coun­ty tribes and a large col­lec­tion of their woven bas­kets. They learn of the Gold Rush that accel­er­at­ed California’s found­ing through the sto­ries of the large pop­u­la­tion of Chi­nese work­ers who flocked to the region and their spe­cif­ic con­tri­bu­tions to the Canyon.

Per­haps most impor­tant­ly, vis­i­tors learn about the sto­ries of the every­day Canyonite. Every arti­fact, pho­to, or piece of cloth­ing has been donat­ed over the years by res­i­dents or their rel­a­tives, which the cura­tors have care­ful­ly and car­ing­ly dis­played. The Bridges of Butte Creek Canyon” dis­play presents the sto­ries and pho­tos of those who have lived in the Canyon.

With reg­u­lar requests for Canyon arti­facts, the Col­man Muse­um is updat­ed reg­u­lar­ly, so vis­i­tors can find the old­est arti­facts (seabed fos­sils found in Butte Coun­ty) just a few steps away from the most recent­ly added one — an 1885 sil­ver dol­lar found in the rub­ble from the Camp Fire.

Colman Museum-Centerville Schoolhouse: Living History
Inside the Colman Museum

The Present

Saved from the Fire

Burned but unmelt­ed, that 1885 sil­ver dol­lar was brought in by a Canyon res­i­dent who found it in the ruins of his home after the Novem­ber 2018 Camp Fire. 

Burn­ing for 17 days, the wild­fire spared lit­tle in Par­adise, Mag­a­lia, and the sur­round­ing areas, includ­ing Butte Creek Canyon. Neigh­bor­ing his­tor­i­cal muse­ums and mon­u­ments, includ­ing the Gold Nugget Muse­um in Par­adise and the Hon­ey Run Bridge, just a few miles down the road from the Cen­ter­ville school, were lost. Many of Butte Creek Canyon’s res­i­dents also lost their homes.

And if it had been locat­ed any­where else, the Cen­ter­ville School­house-Cole­man Muse­um would have prob­a­bly been destroyed, too, but a small con­tin­gent of Canyon res­i­dents worked through­out the night to save their community.

While fire­fight­er crews were busy try­ing to pro­tect Par­adise and its large pop­u­la­tion from the worst of the blaze, a few men from the Canyon, includ­ing Hell­town, worked to hold the line at Cen­ter­ville Road, the near­est nat­ur­al fire­break they could work with. They dug lines, cre­at­ed more fire­breaks, and smoth­ered burn­ing embers.

Around one in the morn­ing, near­ly 18 hours after the fire broke out the pre­vi­ous morn­ing, the crew saw that the fire was threat­en­ing the school­house. In the small canyon com­mu­ni­ty, the Cen­ter­ville School is the clos­est thing to a com­mu­ni­ty cen­ter in the area, host­ing potlucks, events, even San­ta visits.

Colman Museum-Centerville Schoolhouse: Living History
An 1885 silver dollar found in the rubble from the Camp Fire

So the Hell­town Hotshots , as they have come to be known, cut a line around the school­house with an exca­va­tor. The fire got with­in a cou­ple hun­dred feet, burn­ing down a perime­ter fence, but the Cen­ter­ville School­house and Col­man Muse­um were saved.

When fire­fight­ers arrived about 12 hours lat­er, they fur­ther for­ti­fied the area, ensur­ing the sur­vival of the school­house and muse­um at a time when much was still uncer­tain. As the fire burned and crews worked around the clock, they used the school­house as a base­camp, sleep­ing there between shifts. For months after the fire was extin­guished, with pow­er still spot­ty and many dis­placed, the Canyon relied on the school­house as a cru­cial com­mu­ni­ty space for hear­ing the lat­est news, find­ing out about neigh­bors, or even just sit­ting down for a meal with oth­ers still reel­ing from what had happened.

The Cen­ter­ville School­house was nev­er just a school­house, and in the wake of the Camp Fire, its sym­bol as the heart of Butte Creek Canyon has only grown and solid­i­fied. So it’s not a mat­ter of if the Col­man Muse­um will have a sec­tion ded­i­cat­ed to the Camp Fire, but real­ly a mat­ter of when. The Canyon, though, is still rebuild­ing — many res­i­dents who lost their homes have relo­cat­ed out of state, to near­by Chico or Oroville, or are still bounc­ing from home-to-home of friends still in the Canyon.

So for most, even near­ing a year after the fire, it’s still too soon to start con­tribut­ing to this part of the community’s his­to­ry since it’s still very much a part of its present.

Colman Museum-Centerville Schoolhouse: Living History
Inside the Centerville Schoolhouse

The Future

Grow­ing the His­tor­i­cal Compound

As the old adage goes, the only way out is through,” and the Col­man Muse­um, Cen­ter­ville School­house, and all who sup­port and con­tribute to them have plans to get through this stronger than before.

Part of the plan includes work­ing with PG&E to buy the Cen­ter­ville Pow­er­house. It came on line in late 1899, test­ed and cel­e­brat­ed by string­ing lights to the school­house for a Christ­mas dance.

For decades, the pow­er­house had served as a source of pow­er and jobs. Today, it no longer serves its orig­i­nal pur­pose but con­tin­ues to help sup­port the pop­u­la­tion of salmon in Butte Creek. In the future, the CRHA would like to see it as part of the Cen­ter­ville School­house-Col­man Muse­um his­tor­i­cal com­pound, con­nect­ing the tales of the Canyon since the 1800s to what­ev­er the future brings.

Colman Museum-Centerville Schoolhouse: Living History

Build­ing a Bet­ter Future Through Col­lab­o­ra­tion & Community

The oth­er part of the plan to get through this stronger than before, of course, involves com­mu­ni­ty. The school­house and muse­um were for­tu­nate to sur­vive the fire when fel­low muse­ums weren’t, so the CRHA is work­ing to sup­port and build up its neighbors.

The Col­man Muse­um has opened its doors to the Hon­ey Run Bridge Asso­ci­a­tion, which is work­ing on efforts to rebuild the beloved bridge. To help with fundrais­ing, the muse­um sells Hon­ey Run gift items. The muse­um is also work­ing on set­ting up an event with the Gold Nugget Muse­um, which cur­rent­ly shares space with the Depot Muse­um in Par­adise, as its own board works on rebuild­ing plans. The CRHA has a vision for an event that brings togeth­er the Cen­ter­ville School­house-Col­man Muse­um, Hon­ey Run Bridge Asso­ci­a­tion, and Gold Nugget Muse­um in a com­mu­ni­ty-cen­tered cel­e­bra­tion of the area. 

Those liv­ing in the Canyon know the sto­ries, know how life here is dif­fer­ent than down the hill,” know the pow­er of the com­mu­ni­ty on its very sur­vival. A uni­fied event of the three his­tor­i­cal asso­ci­a­tions would be an oppor­tu­ni­ty for vis­i­tors to learn about that sto­ry — the sto­ry of a com­mu­ni­ty that ral­lies around a school­house-muse­um with a flex­i­ble name, deeply root­ed to the land, for­ti­fied by fire, and deter­mined to con­tin­ue writ­ing its narrative.

Colman Museum-Centerville Schoolhouse: Living History
The Centerville Schoolhouse