Thursday, October 04, 2007

Truth, Justice, and the State of Jefferson

When I was growing up in southern California, most of my elementary school teachers mentioned that there had once been a movement in northern California to create a separate state. Not many particulars were mentioned, other than that there was a prevailing feeling that politicians in Sacramento weren't fairly representing the interests of folks living in the region. In high school, as I recall, the northern California statehood movement was never mentioned. I more or less forgot about the whole thing.

When Rhonda and I got back together about fourteen years ago, we had a big decision to make. Y'see, she lived in northern California, while I lived down in Ventura County. She loved living in Shasta County, and the housing prices there were much more reasonable than down south. I'd always liked it up there too--my dad had a high school buddy who lived there--so, I moved up north.

Rhonda would often have the stereo tuned to the local National Public Radio station, Jefferson Public Radio. The station's studios were in Ashland, Oregon, just a bit north of the California/Oregon border. (If you've heard of Ashland, it's likely because of the internationally touted Oregon Shakespeare Festival.) It was during that time that I learned, thanks to JPR, that northern Californians weren't alone in their desire to create a separate state. No, it was actually an effort made up of mostly rural northern California and southern Oregon counties. During station breaks, a recorded announcement would often air explaining the station's mission, and it mentioned the "State of Jefferson," said to be "the home of some serious, and not-so-serious, efforts to create a new state."

As I settled in to the northern California life, the "not-so-serious" side of the State of Jefferson movement seemed to hold sway. Indeed, Jefferson seemed a whimsical state of mind, sort of a collective outlook that might be labeled "Northern Exposure Lite."

The State of Jefferson movement wasn't always so whimsical. In the fall of 1941, a guy by the name of Gilbert Gable got the ball rolling in a big way. Gable was the mayor of Port Orford, Oregon. His speeches urging the establishment of a new state--formed by southern Oregon and northern California counties--were at first meant only as publicity stunts to draw attention to the poor roads of the region. Many citizens of the region, however, wanted more than just publicity: they actually wanted a new state. The feeling was that if the area was to grow economically, the poor infrastructure would need vast improvement. The legislatures in Salem and Sacramento, as the thinking went, cared little about making things better in their region.

The movement grew quickly, and in November 1941 the provisional capital of Jefferson was set up in Yreka, California. Later that month, a bunch of guys carrying hunting rifles began stopping traffic south of Yreka. They handed motorists copies of a Proclamation of Independence. The handbills stated that the state of Jefferson was engaged in "patriotic rebellion against the states of California and Oregon."

The guys with hunting rifles were probably the reason that the State of Jefferson was catapulted into the national news scene. People began to take the succession effort seriously; the movement had gone way beyond a mere publicity stunt. The rebellion soon competed on front pages with Germany's aggressions in Europe. Jefferson was big news. In fact, a reporter from the San Francisco Chronicle, Stanton Deleplane, wrote a series of articles on the "rebellion" that won him the Pulitzer Prize in 1942.

Hollywood newsreel companies showed up for the swearing in of the governor of Jefferson, Judge John Childs of Crescent City, California. It was a big event indeed, with parades and marching bands preceding the inauguration ceremony on the courthouse lawn. The newsreels were scheduled to show nationally during the week of December 8th.

Alas, the movement to create the new state of Jefferson got knocked on its ass, however indirectly, by the Japanese. The bombing of Pearl Harbor happened on December 7th, and overnight, the state of Jefferson vanished from the headlines, and the Jefferson inauguration newsreels were shelved. New roads were hastily built in the area to access the natural resources harbored there, which created many new jobs in the region. Many more residents joined the war effort by enlisting in the armed services, or going to work in factories. In the space of just two or three months, the Jefferson rebellion had mushroomed from a mere publicity stunt to a serious movement. With the outbreak of World War II, however, the movement, seemingly overnight, lost all the wind in its sails. There were bigger fish to fry.

And yet, the idea of Jefferson as a "state" has never died. Jefferson, today, has its own radio stations, art scene, and music scene. The people of northern California and southern Oregon have not forgotten that they have more in common with each other than their supposed brethren in Sacramento and Salem. Megan Shaw, a fifth generation Oregonian, wrote this regarding Jefferson on the website Bad Subjects: All cynicism aside, I do not believe that the United States is yet prepared to interpret a political movement that is a synthesis of rural anti-federalism and labor activism, one that in some ways is classically conservative and in other ways classically progressive (yet at the same time is not quite either). If the State of Jefferson had not removed itself to the cultural sphere, it would have risked following the route of such separatist movements as the Montana Freemen and the Republic of Texas. Those movements relied on fairly narrow bands of support that were not deeply entrenched in the culture. I support the State of Jefferson continuing to work in the long term toward greater self-definition, and towards legal separation from Oregon and California if that is the population's wish. I believe that they are entrenching their movement in the region's culture in a way that can make such a transition possible. One jazz band at a time.

Jefferson lives on in the hearts and minds of the folks living there. It may be, for the most part, merely a whimsical "state of mind." Somehow, though, I suspect that the legislatures in Sacramento and Salem are mindful that, if they screw up too much, they could awake one morning to find that it's 1941 all over again.

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