Jefferson secession managed like a movie
October 23, 2014
The editorial writer for the Portland Morning Oregonian was trying to be sarcastically dismissive, but between the lines, a discriminating reader could pick up on signs of real concern.
“Curry (County) would of course immediately acquire the glorious climate of California and become a haven for retired Midwest farmers,” he wrote. “Gold Beach would become a metropolis with offensive slums, and Latin quarters, and traffic problems and police scandals and what-not. … The Curry County plan to become a county of California is so full of potential disaster that once again its people are beseeched to pause and consider.”
The plan the paper was inveigling against had been put forth by Port Orford mayor and industrial magnate Gilbert Gable a few days before: Curry County would leave Oregon and join California — which, Gable hoped, would invest the road-building and harbor-development resources needed to unlock the mineral and timber resources with which the county was blessed.
Gable’s hope was to shame Salem into stepping up with those resources; he probably never entertained a California Anschluss as a serious possibility. And indeed, the main result in both Salem and Sacramento was little more than scornful laughter. But the gambit also raised Gable’s profile, and suddenly other nearby counties were interested in his plan.
A delegation from Josephine County (home of Grants Pass and the Oregon Caves) suggested joining Josephine and Curry counties in an entirely new state: “Cavemania.” South of the California border, Del Norte County, home of Crescent City — another promising seaport that had been scorned by the powers that be — also wanted in.
But it was in Siskiyou County, and especially in Yreka, that that State of Jefferson movement started getting serious traction. Yreka was a town where resentment of Sacramento’s neglect had simmered for decades. Now, with a skillful P.R. man like Gable to rally behind, the Yreka 20-30 Club took the State of Jefferson on as a project.
It wasn’t called Jefferson yet, though. Some people had been calling it “Mittelwestcoastia,” but that, of course, would never do. The Yreka Daily News, eager to help, announced a “name the state” contest, which yielded what historian Richard Reinhart called “a field of equally repulsive entries including Orofino, Bonanza, Del Curiskiou, Siscurdelmo, New West, New Hope and Discontent” — along with Jefferson. Jefferson, unsurprisingly, won.
Gable now found himself in the role of chief executive of the new proposed state — in effect, governor. As such, he started issuing executive orders in press releases to newspapers: Jefferson would be free of sales tax, income tax and liquor tax; labor strikes would be outlawed (no big surprise coming from the guy who owned almost all Curry County industry); and slot machines would be outlawed — not because they were immoral, but because they competed unfairly with the state’s “stud poker industry.”
The Oregonian gnashed its teeth in editorial fury, but someone at the San Francisco Chronicle found the whole affair very droll, and soon legendary Chronicle newsman Stanton Delaplane was on his way north to check it out. He and his editors, still thinking the whole thing something of a lark, expected his coverage to be fun and fluffy — “like an A.A. Milne report on political upheaval at Pooh Corner,” as Reinhardt put it.
It was a little like that. But it was also, they he quickly learned, much more.
Delaplane discovered that, under the tutelage of the PR wizard Gable, things had gotten very interesting. The 20-30 Club had organized a “State of Jefferson Border Patrol,” members of which had dressed up in Western outfits and strapped on target pistols for an event called “Secession Thursday,” on Nov. 27: They set up roadblocks to stop cars on the highways, next to barrels of burning kerosene. Drivers were given a few copies of a “Proclamation of Independence,” urged to hand them out to all their friends, and sent on their way with a friendly Western-show smile. And, of course, a few carefully staged “car stops” involving fetching-looking female motorists and wholesomely-Western-looking “Border Patrol officers” were photographed for distribution to the national media.
“This state has seceded from California and Oregon this Thursday, November 27, 1941,” the handbill reads. “Patriotic Jeffersonians intend to secede each Thursday until further notice.”
Delaplane found himself the first national reporter on the scene of a story that was suddenly blowing up rather big. Newsreel companies were scrambling to get film crews out for the next Secession Thursday. The Yreka Daily News carried instructions for local residents on how to receive the national media — instructions that might as well have been penned by the great Edward Bernays himself: “Please wear Western clothes if they are available,” it read. “Two hundred people in Western costumes will be selected to march past the camera for close-ups.”
Upon arrival, the film crews handled the crowd like extras at a movie shoot. “Get over there and be looking at the map,” a man with a bullhorn yelled at them. “Don’t be looking at the camera … We have too many children. Can’t we have a few more adults in here? … Show a little enthusiasm! Wave your arms!”
The State of Jefferson had never seemed more like a real movement than it did at that moment, on the second Secession Thursday. But what the national media didn’t realize was that it was already a spent force. The movement’s heart — the brilliant and colorful character whose public-relations savvy had made everything possible — was dead.
It happened the day after reporter Delaplane left to go back to San Francisco with his story. Gilbert E. Gable had been up late the night before with Delaplane, comparing notes and talking about how the two of them were going to manage the public-relations bonanza that was bursting around their ears. Delaplane was going to win a Pulitzer; Gable was going to win approval for the railroad that was holding him back from becoming the wealthiest man on the West Coast; and the residents of Curry County were going to win statehood. The two of them talked, and drank, long into the night.
And the next day, unexpectedly, Gable dropped dead. The official cause of death was “acute indigestion,” but that, of course, meant a heart attack.
Delaplane did win the Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the secession movement. But the movement itself, without Gable, was lost. And when, just three days later, the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor, Jefferson’s new duly elected governor (Judge John Childs of Crescent City) announced that Secession Thursdays — along with all other activities relating to the new state — would cease until further notice, as the U.S. now had bigger fish to fry.
Today, the State of Jefferson remains a fond memory for some; a fond hope for others; and for a few remaining die-hards, a serious goal. For most of us, though, it’s a fascinating piece of the frontier history of Oregon and California, and an excellent excuse to visit the most gloriously untraveled part of the Oregon Coast.
(Sources: Reinhardt, Richard. “The Short, Happy History of the State of Jefferson,” The American West, May 1972; Laufer, Peter. The Elusive State of Jefferson. Guilford, Conn .: TwoDot, 2013; http://jeffersonstate.com)
Finn J.D. John teaches New Media at Oregon State University and is the author of “Wicked Portland,” a book about the dark side of Oregon’s metropolis in the 1890s. For details, see http://finnjohn.com. To contact him or suggest a topic: [email protected] or 541-357-2222.
Top Image: San Francisco Chronicle. Members of the Yreka 20-30 Club, sporting Western attire, staff the roadblock as “State of Jefferson Border Patrol” officers during the first Secession Thursday. This obviously-staged photograph shows a motorist accepting a copy of the “Proclamation of Independence” from one of the men.
Bottom Image: Ben Maxwell/ Salem Public Library. The town of Port Orford as viewed from the south, in 1962.
McKenzie River Reflections