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Offbeat Oregon History: Album cover art

Martial law declaration was enforced by governor's secretary

Fern Hobbs, at head of a small detachment of National Guardsmen, padlocked Copperfield's saloons and gambling parlors and put the town under state military rule — much to the city leaders' consternation.

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

One of the most unusual episodes in Oregon history started just before Christmas in 1913: Gov. Oswald West declared martial law in a small Eastern Oregon town, dispatched National Guard troops and launched an attempt to fire the publicly elected sheriff of Baker County.

The entire episode is mostly remembered in most of western Oregon today as a triumph of the governor's diminuitive secretary, Fern Hobbs, over a town full of roistering, hard-fisted drunken rowdies. In much of eastern Oregon, it’s remembered as a governor behaving like a third-world dictator.

As with so many history stories, the truth of the matter is a bit obscure.

In Copperfield, a tiny mining town just north of Baker City, the drinking and gambling joints were owned by the city fathers, and these were using their political clout to keep the competition out. The competition responded by putting together a petition and sending it to West..

The town of Copperfield as seen shortly after it was platted, in 1907.
(Image: Baker County Library)

Willamette Valley pro-temperance newspapers like the Portland Oregonian got hold of this issue and played it very big. West sent a telegram to the Baker County Sheriff, Ed Rand, demanding that he take care of the problem. Rand replied that he had no evidence of lawbreaking, and therefore no legal basis on which to take such action — a reasonable reply, but likely a bit insincere. Sheriffs didn't get paid much at the time, certainly not enough to justify starting a fight with a hard-fisted, hard-drinking town full of heavily armed miners.

Rebuffed by Rand, West decided to dispatch his personal secretary, Fern Hobbs, to take care of the problem.

Fern Hobbs in the early 1910s. (Image: Baker County Library)

Copperfield residents apparently thought this was a wonderful joke, and hung the town with banners and bunting to welcome her to town.

They were in for a rude shock. Hobbs was five-three and weighed just 104 pounds. But when she descended from the train, she was at the head of a small column of National Guard troops. Thus reinforced, she strode to City Hall and demanded that all city officials with business ties to the booze-and-bones business immediately step down from their public posts. If they did not, she would impose martial law on the city, seize all weapons, padlock all saloons and destroy all drinking and gambling supplies.

As she likely expected, the officials refused. So she and the troops carried out all her threats on the spot. Then, leaving the troops there to maintain order and keep the saloons shut down, Hobbs got back on the train and headed back to Baker City, where she checked into the Geiser Grand Hotel and rebuffed all attempts to contact her.

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

Copperfield remained under martial law for weeks. A local court issued an injunction, ordering them to stop the confiscation of property until the right to do so could be tested in court. West ordered the soldiers to ignore it and carry on. Pro-temperance newspapers in the Willamette Valley celebrated the victory; Eastern Oregon newspapers sounded worried and scared. "If the power and authority of our civil courts is to be thus treated, 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," wrote the editor of the Morning Democrat.

In 1959, Fern Hobbs returned to the scene of her triumph in
Copperfield. The man standing just behind her is not identified, but
is probably Stewart Holbrook . (Image: Baker County Library)

In the aftermath, rumors flew and some made it into the papers. "Martial law for Baker next," screamed a headline in the Morning Democrat, in type two inches tall. There were also rumors that the governor was going to try to oust Sheriff Rand by fiat, something governors are not empowered to do -- sheriffs are elected officials, so they serve at the pleasure of voters, not governors. But in the end, it all subsided. West had made his point.

A few months later, a mysterious fire swept through Copperfield and left the town a ruin. It was never rebuilt.

(Sources: Baker City Morning Democrat, Dec. 1913-Jan. 1914; Albany Democrat, Jan. 1914; Gulick, Bill. Roadside History of Oregon. Missoula: Mountain Press, 1991)