written by Peter Laufer | featured photo by Brant Ward
The story of how a masquerading journalist, a falsely elected governor, a photo-op roadblock, a staged-for-television protest march of movie extras in Western wear and a public relations machine became the mythical State of Jefferson.
Since 1854, a faction of people in deep Southern Oregon and the northern reaches of California have gnawed on the fantasy of secession from Salem and Sacramento to form the State of Jefferson.
Fanned by the misconception that back in 1941, were it not for the attack on Pearl Harbor, Port Orford or Yreka would now be the thriving capital of the elusive State of Jefferson, the dream of secession is rekindled of late by the vast region’s lagging economy. The proposed State of Jefferson’s borders, from the southern edge of Roseburg and 380 miles south to Mendocino, outline a region larger than Connecticut.
Many secessionists fancy themselves as rugged individualists, survivalists and back-to-the-landers. They see urbanite-driven government from the current state capitals as unnecessary intrusion on their rights to fend for themselves. Others are strict regionalists who see irreconcilable differences between their sparsely populated wild lands and the metropolises that govern them. It’s a common theme around these United States. Last November, for example, eleven counties in Colorado voted on a proposal to dispense with Denver and found a new state of North Colorado.
Reasonable and understandable grievances plague Jefferson. The Great Recession in 2007 came as the area’s logging, fishing and mining industries were already staggered by exploitation and regulation. Unemployment and underemployment were endemic.
I spent most of last year wandering Jefferson’s back roads listening to its citizens’ complaints, ideas and hopes. I wanted to understand the local grievances and learn what fuels the passion to continue the task of trying to carve a new state from parts of two, even with histories dating back to the mid-1800s. After all, there has been no such political success since West Virginia separated from Confederate Virginia.
Just south of the Oregon border, Del Norte County sheriff Dean Wilson, for one, believes that the federal government could be forced to relinquish to the new state the public lands it administers, which would be free to monetize its timber stands, mineral wealth and fisheries. “We could create a state that tries to be strongly independent of federal dollars, and based on individual freedom, individual liberty and individual responsibility,” said Wilson. As the top law enforcement official in the county, Wilson brandishes his independence by refusing to administer the California state law against carrying loaded weapons in public, insisting the law infringes on Constitutional rights.
The sparsely populated Jefferson region at least knows how to make itself feel better when times are tough: gin up the statehood charade. Jeffersonians historically find it easy to pretend that, without the rest of us meddling in their affairs, their problems could be solved among themselves. That analysis helps explain why counties on the California side of the current border have been voting one after another to consider secession or, as one Jefferson advocate suggested, “separation” from the rest of California.
How a Small Work of Fiction Became Stranger-than-fiction Film
The State of Jefferson publicity machine was honed in Oregon by Port Orford mayor Gilbert Gable, a public relations practitioner from back East; and San Francisco Chronicle reporter Stanton Delaplane, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1941 reporting about Jefferson. Mayor Gable generated national attention when he threatened secession that same year while seeking state funds to build roads to exploit Jefferson’s natural resources in a more efficient manner. Journalist Delaplane’s front-page dispatches from the seceding “state” were fancy-filled with imaginative prose, a welcome relief for readers weary of war talk.
Deep in the special collections of the Mill Valley, California library, Stanton Delaplane himself checked in with details about his Pulitzer-winning escapades in Jefferson. In 1978, thirty-seven years after he filed his dispatches from the wilds of Southern Oregon and Northern California, Delaplane sat for an interview with historian Carl Mosher.
“I began taking charge of it,” he told Mosher of the nascent secessionist movement he was sent to cover by his big-city editors. “I could see they needed a little help,” he reminisced about the rebels. As he talked with Mosher, Delaplane explained how he helped actually create the breaking story he would then write about, calling it “a press agent kind of thing.” He called Mayor Gable “a simple, barefoot press agent [who] got himself elected mayor of Port Orford. He was press-agenting it,” Delaplane said of Gable’s initial calls for secession, “and I was press-agenting it. So we got together in a little cabin in a small town in Oregon.” That small town was Port Orford.
“We compared notes and decided how we would do it,” Delaplane explained of their alcohol-fueled meeting. “The only thing the matter with it was he died the next day of a heart attack.” The newsman soberly noted the value of the sudden death to his story. “It made for a very dramatic ending to a seven-day series, and I think that is what impressed the Pulitzer Prize committee.”
The legend of the 1941 Jefferson movement is based on the now-infamous Jefferson Proclamation of Independence and on the Highway 99 roadblocks that followed, immortalized with black-and-white photographs of rifle-toting locals stopping northbound motorists. In the interview with Mosher, Delaplane takes full credit for creating these headline-making elements of the news story he was sent to report.
“It was a half-serious thing with them,” he said about the local boys he encountered when he arrived in Yreka. “But as soon as they saw their names in the paper, they began to take it very seriously. Before that it was kind of for fun.” Delaplane wrote the “local boys” a script complete with stage directions. “I said, ‘Listen, you’d better get out on the highway.’ I wrote them a manifesto, and we stopped cars with roadblocks.” Note the use of the first-person plural pronoun. “Everybody was armed with shotguns and pistols, but very polite. We would hand out the manifesto and say, ‘Pass this out down the line.’ We’d give them a handful and say, ‘Every place you stop for gas, every place you stop for lunch, leave one of these on the counter.’ So we were passing along this manifesto which declared our rebellion against Sacramento and Salem.” All the while, Delaplane was generating fabulous and fantastic copy for his stories.
The 1941 “Proclamation of Independence” remains popular through out Jefferson. The handbills announced:
You are now entering Jefferson the 49th State of the Union. Jefferson is now in patriotic rebellion against the States of California and Oregon.
This State has seceded from California and Oregon this Thursday, November 27, 1941. Patriotic Jeffersonians intend to secede each Thursday until further notice.
For the next hundred miles as you drive along Highway 99, you are travelling parallel to the greatest copper belt in the Far West, seventy-five miles west of here.
The United States government needs this vital mineral. But gross neglect by California and Oregon deprives us of necessary roads to bring out copper ore.
If you don’t believe this, drive down the Klamath River highway and see for yourself. Take your chains, shovel and dynamite. Until California and Oregon build a road into the copper country, Jefferson, as a defense-minded State, will be forced to rebel each Thursday and act as a separate State. (Please carry this proclamation with you and pass them out on your way.)
“We compared notes and decided how we would do it. The only thing the matter with it was he died the next day of a heart attack.”
Reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle
|The Proclamation of Independence was signed by members of the State of Jefferson Citizens Committee, who announced the temporary state capital—Yreka, on the California side. The insurgents appointed a governor to replace the deceased Mayor Gable. His successor was John Childs, a retired Crescent City judge who since 1935 had been threatening secession from California as a device to draw attention to bad roads.|
The 1941 ad hoc State of Jefferson Citizens Committee decided to stage a secession parade through downtown Yreka with a rousing speech by “Governor” Childs at a rally in front of the courthouse. Or perhaps the television crews sent from Hollywood directed the committee to organize the march and rally because their cameras needed the “news.” The Siskiyou Daily News offered its own readers the role of playing movie extras in its coverage of the statehood movement. “Please attend the filming and be photographed,” cajoled the newspaper. “Please wear Western clothes if they are available. Parents are urged to bring their children. Two hundred people in Western costumes will be selected to march past the cameras for close-ups.”
Hundreds of locals responded to the paper’s call. They paraded up Miner Street with torches. They crowded in front of the courthouse to hear their new governor speak. Many wore Western clothes.
The late California state historian W.N. Davis, Jr. studied the citizens’ committee and determined it was a loose amalgam—each member exerted whimsical pseudo-authority “speaking his own mind to willing listeners, picked up and added to the ‘secession’ story,” he wrote in the California Historical Society Quarterly, “It is true. By the time the movement reached its climax, a few of the promoters had shouted themselves into believing secession would be a good thing if it were Constitutionally possible, but the feeling was nowhere widespread, as the press accounts would have one believe.”
Those 1941 theatrics in Yreka led directly to the periodic and continuing efforts to create some sort of state of Jefferson—promoted by entrepreneurs and regionalists, along with politicians both amateur and professional.
The year 1971 was a resurgent one for Jefferson. On the Oregon side, Josephine County Commissioner Kenneth W. Jackson traveled to a meeting of Oregon counties far from his home, across the state in Pendleton, carrying with him Jefferson T-shirts and the Jefferson flag. Each depicts two crosses representing the double-cross the flag-wavers say they suffer from Salem and Sacramento. He promoted the proposed fifty-first state, proffering Grants Pass (his county seat) as its capital.
Down in California at the same time, Siskiyou County supervisor Earl Ager was remembering his days back in 1941, parading for Jefferson on the streets of Yreka. He campaigned that the cause was still valid, but he wanted the capital on the California side of the line. Ager touted radical goals for a Jefferson he proposed to lead as its first governor. He insisted that, unlike the heritage of the 1941 action, his call for Jefferson was no “publicity stunt.” Vigilantes instead of police would be the answer to street criminals, he said. “The people of Northern California and Southern Oregon would take care of these sons of bitches. They wouldn’t need police.” This elected official had ideas for those already tried and convicted of crimes. “There’s a lotta guys in prison that oughta be hung,” he proclaimed. “If they hung ’em the first time they were put in prison, they wouldn’t have to worry about putting them there a second time.”
Ager’s target was not just the criminal justice system. He wanted to protect Jefferson’s natural resources from exploitation by Southern California and northern Oregon. “I think we could pull our own weight in Jefferson just fine,” he told Redding newspaper reporter Garth Sanders, Jr. in November 1971, thirty years after “Governor” Childs’ inauguration address claimed independence. “All we’d have to do is shut the water off to Southern California and we’d have no problem bargaining with them.” Sanders captured Ager’s personality in his front-page story. In that story, Ager “snorted” and “snapped” his answers to questions, including the crucial, “Who should be the governor of Jefferson?”
“Me, that’s who!” he snorted and snapped.
In 1978, a depressed Klamath Falls turned to the Jefferson legend for help and staged the Jefferson State Stampede rodeo. Oregon governor Vic Atiyeh rode in the Main Street parade and joined Klamath Falls lawyer and longtime state legislator Harry Boivin for what the two called a summit meeting. Boivin was anointed governor of Jefferson for the duration of the rodeo. Klamath Falls funeral home director Jim Ward served as Jefferson secretary of state during the rodeo days. “It was just to try to get some business stirred up,” he later told the city’s Herald and News. “The downtown area was slumping, and things were at a dead end here.”
The San Francisco Chronicle sent reporter Kevin Fagan to Jefferson in 2008 to check on the status of the story the paper created in 1941. Fagan found Randy Bashaw, a Trinity County lumber mill manager, in the crossroads of Hayfork. “We have nothing in common with you people down south. Nothing,” insisted Bashaw. “The sooner we’re done with all you people, the better.”
In Yreka, Fagan encountered another voice at Cooley & Pollard Hardware, where manager Richard Mitchell talked secession. “Heck, yeah, it’s a darn good idea,” Mitchell said. “Those liberal people down south don’t understand us at all.”
The lasting appeal of the Jefferson tale mirrors a fundamental Western fantasy that we’re rugged individualists who like to go it alone.
Rick Jones, owner of the general store in Seiad Valley just south of the Oregon border, ascribes to the notion that, “All our tax money goes south [to Sacramento] and nothing comes back here.”
In fact, more taxpayer money goes back to Jefferson for roads and social services than Jones and his neighbors send south. Much more. The California Department of Finance ran the numbers and ascertained that $20 million more flows north each year than gets sent to the capital in tax money from the Jefferson-area counties. This fact, nonetheless, may seem trivial to set minds.
Ultimately, Oregonians and Californians never would accede to the threat of the handful of Jefferson staters, if for no other reason than fear of exploitation of the region’s water and wilderness. Further, statehood would result in two new senators from what likely would be a so-called red state with a lesser population than Portland. Additionally, such a new state would have to be ratified by the full houses of the existing states and the U.S. Congress. Given the contentious nature between political parties, it’s highly unlikely that Democrats in Congress from traditional blue states would agree to carving out a conservative competitor.
What’s left is a small steam hole of frustration from people between Redding and Roseburg. When Portland and San Francisco urbanites articulate their romance of a wilder West, Jefferson staters begin to believe their own propaganda, losing sight of the political and economic realities. Debate inevitably jumps to what should be the new state’s capital, Klamath Falls or Yreka.
Nevertheless, some ideas around secession are useful. They allow the alienated to be heard. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to James Madison in 1787, “A little rebellion now and then is a good thing. It is a medicine necessary for the sound health of government.”
In the end, a dash of the golden age of Hollywood—Greta Garbo—may be a more appropriate moniker for the aspiring break-away state. Once retired from acting, Garbo became famous for wanting to be left alone. Aggrieved Jeffersonians also say they want to be left alone. Garbo is enigmatic and private with a wry nod to celebrity. For a place where history—in fact and fancy—was created by the deft use of publicity, a name change to Garbo would almost certainly put Jefferson back in headlines around the world, if only for a day.