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Governor’s secretary imposed martial law on three saloons

Don't be fooled: Fern Hobbs was a secretary in the “Secretary of Defense” sense of the word. A practicing attorney, she was the highest-paid woman in public service. Copperfield's city fathers thought they could charm her ... they were wrong.

Fern Hobbs as she appeared during the Copperfield affair. This may be a portrait made after her graduation from law school in 1913, as she appears to be wearing academic robes. (Image: Baker County Library)
EDITOR'S NOTE: This column is a rewriting and thorough re-researching of a much shorter column first published in November 2009, which you’ll find here.

All Oregonians owe former Gov. Oswald West a debt of gratitude for saving Oregon’s beaches from being locked away in private ownership.

But the progressive “father-knows-best” impulses that inspired West to take that action didn’t always lead in such positive directions. There were other events during West’s governorship when he came out looking positively fascistic — perfectly willing to disregard the rule of law when it conflicted with his own opinion of what was morally right.

And that is how progressive hero Os West came to be the only governor in state history (so far as I have been able to learn) to actually issue an Andrew Jackson-style command to the Oregon National Guard ignore a legally issued court order.

Here’s how this happened:

 

In the first few years of the 20th century, the Baker County town of Copperfield was platted, near Baker City. It was originally a small copper-mining town; but by 1907 or so, Copperfield was more or less a construction camp: a pair of very long tunnels were under construction nearby, one by the predecessor of the Idaho Power Company and the other by a local railroad.

Copperfield as seen from the Idaho side of the Snake River, across the footbridge. (Image: Baker County Library)

The town quickly developed a reputation for lawlessness. At its peak, it boasted 11 saloons, 11 brothels, two hotels, three stores, and a four-cell jailhouse/drunk tank with a dance hall on the second floor.

But then, starting early in 1910, the construction workers started leaving. The railroad tunnel was finished; the power plant soon was too. By late 1913 the town had dwindled from 1,000 or so residents to just 100 or so. But this left the town’s saloons and bordellos all gasping for business.

The majority of them quietly closed their doors. But the owners of the others — three saloons, and possibly some of the brothels as well — quickly realized that they could turn Copperfield’s reputation to their advantage, drawing visitors from nearby Baker City for a good time, the way Las Vegas does with Los Angeles. And this is where things started to go badly for them.

It turned out that, out of the 100-odd residents of the town, at least half did not approve of the saloon and bordello owners’ new “sin tourism” business model. Their complaints to Baker County Sheriff Ed Rand having gone unheeded, they sent a petition to Governor West with fifty signatures on it. They complained that the saloons were selling booze on Sundays and hosting illegal gambling. (They didn’t mention the prostitution in the petition.)

A scene in downtown Copperfield, circa 1910. (Image: Baker County Library)

West, a committed Prohibitionist who was at that very moment working to get booze outlawed in Oregon, was very sympathetic. He promptly issued an order to Rand to close the saloons by Dec. 26.

Rand, as an elected official, did not answer to the governor, so the order had no legal weight; but he tried to be diplomatic about it. What law should he invoke, he asked the governor? None of the residents were willing to be witnesses against the saloons in court, so he couldn’t get a court order to close anyone. Without a court order, he couldn’t legally close any business.

“That,” writes historian Gary Diehlman dryly, “was not the answer that West wanted to hear.”

So West announced his intention to send his secretary, Fern Hobbs, to impose martial law on the town.

 

Now, Fern Hobbs was 30 years old in 1913, but she looked about 22. She was a slender, petite woman, bespectacled, 5 feet 3 inches tall, with a classically beautiful, girlish face. She would have looked rather like a cute young schoolteacher or librarian — if it weren’t for those steady, steely eyes. The fact was, she was no ordinary secretary. As most historians have, over the years, neglected to mention, she was a licensed and practicing attorney (Willamette University, Class of ’13). She was also, incidentally, the highest-paid woman in public service in the United States.

Overall, Fern Hobbs, J.D., was the ultimate stealth package. When she stepped off the train car in Copperfield, the local businessmen had no idea what was about to hit them.

Fern Hobbs, revisiting the site of Copperfield in 1959, poses for a photograph with a big Colt six-shooter tucked into her belt as writer Stewart Holbrook looks on. (Image: Baker County Library)

In what must have been intended as an attempt to charm the “secretary,” the locals had decorated the town with copious amounts of bunting and pink and blue ribbons, and a small welcoming committee of city councilmen stood by to greet her, each holding a bouquet of flowers, as she stepped onto the platform.

Their first nasty shock must have been the five armed and grim-faced Oregon National Guard officers who stepped off the train after her.

Hobbs declined the proffered bouquets, but handed each City Council member a letter of resignation to sign. (Remember, these were elected officials, not gubernatorial appointees. Neither Hobbs nor West had any authority to demand the resignation of an elected official.)

They all, of course refused to step down.

At that, Hobbs declared the town under martial law, ordered National Guard Col. B.K. Lawson to impose it, and took the 4 o’clock train to Baker City — where she checked into the Geiser Grand hotel and rebuffed all attempts to contact her.

Lawson and his troops then proceeded to padlock all the saloons and confiscate all the liquor, weapons and gambling supplies in Copperfield.

Saloon owners Henry Stewart and William Wiegand (the town’s mayor and one of its city councilors, respectively) promptly filed a suit to stop the confiscations. A circuit court judge filed an injunction to stop the process while its legality could be probed.

That’s when Oswald West issued his infamous order to Lawson to ignore the court and carry on.

Lawson, worried about getting arrested by Sheriff Rand for contempt of court, requested and got reinforcements. They stayed in Copperfield, enforcing martial law, for several weeks.

In Baker City, there was a distinct note of fear in the coverage of this unfolding affair. “MARTIAL LAW FOR BAKER NEXT,” screamed a two-inch-tall headline on the front page of the Baker City Morning Democrat shortly after the raid.

“If the power and authority of our civil courts is to be thus treated,” wrote the editor of the Morning Democrat, “then we certainly have a czar in the gubernatorial chair in Salem whose word and command is law, and we had just as well abolish our courts and turn over all affairs of state to the executive.”

Newspapers in the Willamette Valley, though, were much more sanguine about the whole affair.

Meanwhile, having been told that Sheriff Rand was assembling a posse to enforce the court order, West tried to temporarily remove him from office. Nothing came of this, or of the rumored posse either. It seems rather unlikely such a posse was ever seriously considered. As Rand would have well known, the only way it could have enforced the order would have been to risk a firefight with the National Guard.

The whole affair finally made its way to court in Baker, where the judge ruled that courts could not forbid a governor from declaring martial law, but that the saloon owners could file a civil lawsuit and collect damages afterward if a governor did so inappropriately. Whether they pursued this or not, I have been unable to learn.

The saloons never reopened; in 1914, the voters of Oregon approved Prohibition, so there wouldn’t have been much point. And the next year, a fire of suspicious origin swept through the business district, dealing the final coup de grace to the town of Copperfield. Today the old town site is a park operated by Idaho Power.

(Sources: Dielman, Gary. “Copperfield” and “Copperfield Affair, 1913-1914,” The Oregon Encyclopedia, oregonencyclopedia.org; Baker City Morning Democrat, Dec. 1913-Jan. 1914; Albany Democrat, Jan. 1914)