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“Jackson County Rebellion” grew out of newspapers’ fight

An autocratic populist from southern California, arriving in Medford in a flashy Cadillac, managed to position himself as a leader of the poor and disenfranchised. The results would rock the county, and the state, to the core.

A portrait of Llewellyn A. Banks as he appeared in the mid-1920s. (Image: Oregon Historical Quarterly)

To call Llewellyn F. Banks a swindler was overselling things a bit; he seems to have really believed in what he was doing.

To call him a would-be fascist was simply wrong. Sure, he wanted to seize power, but he had no interest in starting a nationalist collectivist autocracy.

Still, after May 21, 1933, you could at least call him a convicted murderer.

The story of Llewellyn Banks’ time in Jackson County is one of the weirder tales to come out of Southern Oregon. It started benignly enough, with his arrival as a wealthy newcomer to the prosperous regional cosmopolis of Medford. But by the time it ended amid murder and chaos, it had nearly all of Jackson County in an almost revolutionary uproar — a mostly forgotten episode that became known as the “Jackson County Rebellion.”

 

Llewellyn Banks was an Ohioan by birth, but he’d made his fortune in citrus orchards in Riverside, in southern California. He was an articulate, charismatic entrepreneur who seemed to lead a charmed life, always leaping from risky move to risky move, somehow landing butter-side-up every time.

But he also had a mammoth ego bolstered with an unshakable faith in his own abilities, and that led — as it so often does — to a kind of endemic paranoia. When something bad happens to most of us, we put it down to either bad luck or a mistake on our part. But for a man like Banks, bad luck didn’t exist, and mistakes were something other people made. That left only one acceptable possibility when things went badly for him: Hostile action by unseen enemies.

Even during the good times, that paranoia occasionally led to trouble. In the mid-1920s, it led to a bitter feud with the Riverside growers’ cooperative that prompted him to sell his orchards, leave Southern California and move his operations to Medford.

And in his new Southern Oregon home, when the bad times came, it would lead to considerably worse things than that.

 

A hand-tinted image of downtown Medford as it appeared in the late 1920s, when the Jackson County Rebellion was first beginning to brew. (Image: Postcard)

Banks arrived in Medford driving a flashy, ostentatious Cadillac touring car with his wife, Edith, and their daughter, Ruth, around 1925. The little family settled into a beautiful Tudor-style home in the swankiest part of town.

Banks soon found a kindred spirit in a local real-estate developer named Earl Fehl, who owned and edited a local weekly newspaper, the Pacific Record-Herald. Fehl was also a perennial candidate for political office. Throughout the 1920s Fehl had run for mayor of Medford at every opportunity and, when he lost, blamed the local political establishment, which he called “The Gang.” The fix was in and the wealthy swells from back east were running Jackson County for themselves, he constantly reiterated (in voice and in print).

In this view, Fehl found himself speaking for a vast majority of the people who dwelled outside of Medford, in the hills and woodlands, working mining claims or farming small patches far from town. Most of these people had lived in Jackson County all their lives, and they remembered what the place had been like before the rich families from back East had moved into the area and taken over, about 20 years before. They remembered, and they resented the social demotion and loss of local influence that had followed. And they also resented, bitterly, the ever-rising property taxes, county fees and especially the vigorous Prohibition enforcement that they were getting from their new self-appointed leaders in Medford.

And things were only getting worse. As the years rolled by, the “roaring twenties” were particularly good to Medford’s social elite as the worldwide market for luxury goods such as the region’s famous Winter Pears grew and strengthened; but the benefits largely passed the backcountry folks by. Their resentment simmered on quietly, ignored by the ruling elites … until Fehl got involved.

Fehl was soon joined by Banks in pandering to this audience. Banks’ efforts to get himself accepted into elite Jackson County society had not worked out, and he was already clashing with other growers who wanted to form a marketing cooperative like the one he’d feuded with in Riverside. Soon Banks and Fehl were allies and friends.

And soon they also became colleagues. In the fall of 1929, Banks got the opportunity to buy one of Medford’s two daily newspapers, and he jumped at the chance. Now, at last, Fehl and Banks were in perfect position, ready to launch the media propaganda campaign that would, they hoped, propel them to political power by giving the disenfranchised country folk of Jackson County a ticket to vote for. 

Fehl and Banks got started immediately with a campaign of savage, divisive editorial rabble-rousing aimed at energizing the rural Jackson County residents whom they had identified as their base constituency. They planned to keep it up for a couple years, whipping the rural residents’ frustrations into active hostility against the incumbent elites, and then offer themselves and a slate of their friends as a political ticket.

There was a major complication coming around the next corner, though, for both these would-be insurgency leaders. Just a few weeks after Llewellyn Banks embarked on his new career as a newspaper editor and publisher, the bottom fell out of the stock market on the other side of the continent — and the country began a slow, terrifying plunge into the worst economic depression in its history. It would, over the next couple years, hit Jackson County with crushing force. And unlike the prosperity of the “roaring twenties,” its effects would be felt by everyone. By 1932, the rural residents of Jackson County were not merely angry — they were, increasingly, desperate. And they responded to the two publishers’ campaign more wholeheartedly than the plotters had dreamed.

Llewellyn Banks and Earl Fehl were, in effect, sowing the wind. Within a couple years, both men would reap the ensuing whirlwind, and it would put both of them in prison along with several of their friends — and, directly or indirectly, it would put four other Jackson County residents in the ground.

We’ll talk about how that played out next week.

(Sources: LaLande, Jeff. “The Jackson County rebellion,” Oregon Historical Quarterly, winter 1994-1995; Thorburn, Mark. “Llewellyn and Edith Banks Trial, 1933,” law.jrank.org)