The Jackson County Rebellion: Llewellyn Banks comes to power
For leaders of the “Good Government Congress,” the Great Depression was a golden opportunity to crystallize popular bewilderment into hatred that could be used to grab for power. And it worked ... too well, as it turned out.
By Finn J.D. John — May 15, 2016
The year of 1932 hit the Rogue River Valley as hard as it hit anyplace. That year was the psychological nadir of the Great Depression — a year of bank closures, suicides, hunger and civil unrest. Across most of the nation, as historian Jeff LaLande points out, the national mood was mostly one of bewilderment rather than anger … but most of the nation didn’t have two local newspapers doing their level best to crystallize that bewilderment into bitter hatred against local political leaders.
Jackson County did. And Jackson County entered 1932 on the brink of open hostilities. Some residents had even taken to carrying pistols on their hips, and armed guards and state police officers with submachine guns were not an uncommon sight on Medford streets.
Moreover, the owners of the two newspapers that were doing all the rabble-rousing — Llewellyn Banks, owner of the Medford Daily News, and Earl Fehl, owner of the weekly Pacific Record Herald — faced increasingly desperate financial straits themselves as the effects of the Depression worsened. Banks was in particularly bad shape. He was behind on payments to the former owners of his newspaper, and faced foreclosure on his orchards. He also was being sued by half a dozen different parties at the same time — creditors, union representatives and people he’d libeled in his newspaper's columns.
The only hope for both of them seemed to be a total takeover of the Jackson County political and judicial machinery. That would enable them to stall their creditors and frustrate their litigants, while possibly also giving them suitably prestigious positions to transition into after the foreclosures and judgements finally did run their inevitable course.
Fortunately, Banks and Fehl had been gearing up for just such a takeover for years.
They’d really focused their editorial and organizational fire on local politics after a moderately disastrous attempt by Banks to unseat U.S. Sen. Charles McNary in 1930. The most memorable incident in that race had been when Banks tried to start a fistfight with a constituent who twitted him about the California license tags on his Cadillac. He’d lost in a landslide, and decided that his time would be better spent trying to build a local power base rather than bothering with statewide office.
So after that, his column in the Daily News talked much less of statewide issues, and far more about “The Gang” — the elected officials in charge of Jackson County. And Earl Fehl — whose latest run for mayor had come tantalizingly close to succeeding — backed him up with gusto in the Record Herald.
Now, after two years of steadily beating the drum for electoral war upon “The Gang,” Banks and Fehl were ready to make their play.
It started with an attempt to recall a Circuit Court judge who was scheduled to preside over one of the lawsuits in which Banks was a defendant. Banks crystalized the recall movement into a political organization, dubbed it the “Good Government Congress,” and started charging its members monthly dues. In spite of this expense, or perhaps partly because of it, it grew into an ominously large force of often heavily armed Jackson County residents, mostly rural residents, working stiffs and the newly unemployed. Members would gather by the hundreds (and, occasionally, thousands) on the courthouse lawn to hear their leader speak, flanked by members of his own militia — the “Green Springs Mountain Boys.”
Then came the election, and the Good Government Congress’s candidates won some of the key positions in the county. In particular, Earl Fehl himself was elected county judge, and Good Government Congress candidate Gordon Schermerhorn squeaked by on a razor-thin majority to become county sheriff.
It would have been a complete takeover had it not been for M.O. Wilkins’ loss in the race for district attorney. That loss hurt, since the D.A. had a lot of influence over the issues Banks and Fehl cared most about: their legal troubles. Already Fehl had lost his printing plant in a libel judgment, and Banks’ creditors were trying to foreclose on his newspaper.
Nonetheless, the two self-styled political bosses quickly set about consolidating their victory, whipping their Good Government Congress members into ever more dangerous frenzies with exhortations on the courthouse steps and in the pages of their newspapers. The rival daily newspaper, the Medford Mail Tribune, which was getting threatening letters every day, hired armed guards to protect itself from the angry crowds. Llewellyn Banks deployed paramilitary detachments of the Green Springs Mountain Boys to guard his own newspaper’s office and printing plant — although that was not for protection against political enemies so much as to prevent it from being seized by his creditors.
Meanwhile, ex-sheriff Jennings remained suspicious that the election that had kicked him out of office had been fraudulent. He’d lost by just over 100 votes — well within the range at which a recount is appropriate — but his efforts to arrange for one were being stymied by the new county judge, Earl Fehl. So he went over Fehl’s head and appealed directly to the state of Oregon, which ordered the recount done.
This was a problem, because the election HAD been rigged — or, at least, an attempt had been made to ensure a positive outcome by strategically rejecting, on paper-thin pretexts, some ballots from the Eagle Point area. If those ballots were recounted, given how slim the margins had been, Sheriff Schermerhorn would almost certainly be declared the loser, and the Good Government Congress would lose the power to deputize members of the Green Springs Mountain Boys to provide muscle. Something had to be done.
And so, on February 20, 1933, something was done. It was done under cover of a massive Good Government Congress rally — at least 1,000 people, probably many more, assembled at the county courthouse for a particularly noisy demonstration.
“Do we want a recount? NO!” the multitude roared, and somewhere on a side street nearby someone revved a flathed Ford V-8 engine to cover up the sound of breaking glass.
The ensuing act of electoral fraud would be done so clumsily and ineptly that within a month the Good Government Congress would be nothing but an awkward memory in Jackson County, its leaders behind bars and its officeholders ousted.
Unfortunately for all concerned, some of those officeholders did not intend to go down without a fight. We’ll talk about that fight in the final installment of this story, 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)