Pioneer days is making a comeback


Photo credit: Cortneanne Campbell

Bianca Quilantan and Cortneanne Campbell

Chico State’s party school image stemmed from celebrations long before the terms “Chicoween” and “Chico Chavez” were coined by party-goers.

Pioneer Days, a celebration that started in 1915, was a week full of festivities put on by the university that led to the 1987 Playboy article that named Chico State the No. 1 party school.

Festivities included rodeos, concerts with stars like Billy Idol, building historical displays, sweepstakes competitions among organizations and voting for Sheriff and Little Nell, which was similar to voting for a homecoming king and queen.

Forty years ago in 1977, Gerri Glass Cose was voted Little Nell. Before that, she was the Pioneer Days chairman in 1976 and a founding mother of Zeta Tau Alpha sorority.

Cose said different organizations on campus including Greeks, clubs and the dorms would get together months in advance to plan for the week-long project.

Each day would have an activity. Monday’s event was called Presents and was hosted in the Chico State stadium.

“Presents is where you would present your candidate,” Cose said. “It had to be historically correct, so you would have to pick someone from back in the old days. They had Wells Fargo, they had logging millsand and railroad companies.”

Cose said her character was Hilder Florentina Smith from an aerial acrobat flying team. Along with her sorority sisters, they were named the “Flying Sylvesters.” She said there was a ritual to presents.

“During Presents you would have to be on stage no more than 7 minutes and all of these judges are sitting in front of you,” Cose said. “Some groups had 50-60 people on stage and they would do these choreographed dance numbers, sing one song, bring out their candidate, sing one more song and then exit the stage for the next group to come up.”

The following night, she said campus organizations would build historically accurate displays from Wells Fargo to historical buildings in Chico. Quads were constructed in one night and looked similar to tiny houses. They were put in what was called the “Hangtown.”

Quads were built for the school children to tour and learn about pioneer history.

“Each group was different,” she said. “The kids would go from quad to quad and they would have someone in there explaining the historical aspects of it and the interior had to have all of these antiques, anything related to the theme that you were doing.”

At the end of the week, the main community event was the annual parade. Cose said 20,000 people or more would show up in downtown Chico. She said the event was canceled because of crowd control issues outside of the parade.

Pioneer Week was the biggest week for partying, Cose said. Issues arose when people from out of town came to Chico to party after an article in a 1987 Playboy magazine dubbed Chico State the No. 1 party school and MTV promoted Pioneer Days nationwide.

“We had all of these out-of-towners coming in and then it got really ugly and people had way too much to drink, partying and they had a riot,” she said. “They overturned a car, they were burning couches in the street.

“All of the people that were working on all of the floats and everything else, we were too exhausted to be burning couches in the street,” Cose said. “Alcohol and jerks don’t mix, so they ruined it for everybody and they blamed it on Pioneer Week.”

After the riots and arrests, Pioneer week was canceled as a university-sponsored function under President Robin Wilson in a letter April 27, 1987.

“The fact of the matter is that Chico–University and city–have been the victims of shameless exploitation by national media, print and television,” Wilson said. “Pioneer Days does constitute an uncontrollable event…For that reason and no other have I canceled University participation in, facilitation of, and support for the celebration.”

After the cancellation, it was adopted by the community under Rancho Chico Days. Because of the continued riots and couch burnings, the city council later cut ties. Only the parade still remains.

“Pioneer Days was pretty huge and it’s really sad that it’s gone,” Cose said. “I understand why, because of one incident that shut things down, but it was really something for the community and that’s why it’s kind of saddening.”

Chico Pioneer Day Parade will take place at 11 a.m., May 6 in downtown Chico for its 100th anniversary.

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Bianca Quilantan and Cortneanne Campbell can be reached at [email protected] or @biancaquilan on Twitter.