Martial Law in Copperfield Oregon

Martial Law in Copperfield Oregon

In some ways parts of Oregon are still very much the Wild West. The independent spirit is far from dead as ranchers still attempt to eek out a living on land their ancestors first homesteaded on. There are still places where horses tied up in front of stores in the “downtown” is not even commented upon. Doctors double as Veterinarians and make house calls. Cults of crazy religions create communes, and neighbors just say “Someone should do something ’bout that.

First incorporated in 1908, the town of Copperfield was hands down Oregon’s rowdiest town. The first Copperfield was established about 75 miles north east of Baker City on July 26th, 1899 with the opening of the post office. This location is now known as Oxbow and sits on the Snake River near Oxbow Reservoir.

In the late 1800’s the town served as a supply depot for local miners. The town had several saloons and a couple of bordellos.

By 1913 between workers from E.H. Harriman’s rail road project and the more workers at dam being built nearby on the Snake River, the town had become the most lawless location in Oregon. Over 1000 citizens live in the town. But the Mayor and City Council owned the local Saloons. Of Law Enforcement, there was none. It was said that the local Marshall was ordered by the Mayor to allow the wild Saturday night to dawn parties.

Daily fights that lasted an hour each were common between the railroad workers and the dam workers. The could use rocks, knives and bottles, but guns and rattlesnakes were forbidden. Roulette wheels and gambling were common in every tavern and hotel.

But the town was already dying a slow death by 1913 as the mining business had dried up long ago. Both the dam and railroad projects had finished and with them the exodus of hundreds of workers. The population dropped from 1200 to 84 in the space of a few months. This simply increased the problems as the saloon owners attempted to attract every last drinking man possible into their establishments. Four saloons were burned down in obvious arson attempts. Mayor A.H. Stewart and one of the other city council members conspired against Martin Knezevich to close his competing saloon down.

Worse yet, in an attempt to make money the saloon owners even served minors. This outraged local mothers and rancher women. Martin Knezevich, who had been reduced to selling soda pop due to problems in “following the liquor laws” goaded these women into petitioning Governor Oswald West to do something about the town. Nearly half the town folk wrote him, including some of the young boys who had been served alcohol in the other saloons.

An ardent Prohibitionist himself, Governor West was outraged. He first pleaded with Ed Rand who was the Baker County Sheriff to clean up the town. Sheriff Rand declined stating that he did not have the power to close down the saloons without a proper trial and to do so would be Unconstitutional. District Attorney C. T. Godwin supported Sheriff Rand in his decision. Both men had already tried to clean up the town but failed due to a lack of evidence.

Next he telegramed the city Mayor and ordered him to close the saloons by Christmas Day, 1913. Or else he might go to Copperfield himself “to shoot a bartender,” and fulfill a long time desire. The town ignored him.

By the end of the year, Governor West was most likely exasperated with the situation and called upon his secret weapon.

Miss Fern Hobbs moved to Hillsboro Oregon and put her younger brother and sister through school while she worked. She worked as private secretary to the president of the Title Guarantee and Trust Company. While she was employed there, the bank failed. Secretary of State Ben Olcott who worked with the failing bank to protect the State’s assets, noted Miss Hobbs’ loyalty and efficiency.

After the failure of the bank, she worked for J. Wesley Ladd (who’s brother William S. Ladd created Ladd’s addition in Portland) as a Governess. On the side she continued to work as a secretary and even studied law. She was able to graduate in 1913 from the Willamette University College of Law and became the first female lawyer in Oregon.

Some time after loosing her job at the bank and before she got her degree, Ben Olcott recommended her services as a stenographer to Governor Oswald. He was so impressed with her abilities that he hired her as his private secretary. At $3000 a year, she became the highest paid woman in public services in the United States.

Oswald soon put her in charge of his anti-vice movement. During 1912 she interviewed a variety of underworld characters and worked to further the Governor’s visions. By the time the Copperfield incident had come up, Miss Hobbs had just returned from Washington D.C. where she had successfully negotiated a land dispute between Oregon State and the Federal Government.

Oswald sent her to Copperfield to resolve his problem there.

Along with some of the “bravest and toughest militiamen in Oregon” who were dressed in civilian clothes, Miss Hobbs boarded the train for Burns Oregon, then to Copperfield. All the National Guardsmen were veterans from the Philippines, and their leader Lieutenant Colonel Berton K. Lawson, was warden of the State’s prison. Their presence was kept a secret by everyone involved.

Mayor Stewart of Copperfield, who had been alerted of her coming, declared that the town would give her a grand reception so that she would find nothing wrong. They decorated the town with ribbons and flowers and awaited her arrival.

On the afternoon of January 3rd, 1914 Miss Fern Hobbs stepped down from the Baker-Copperfield train. Her arrival was greeted by the town toughs and assorted gamblers who had come to laugh at her. Unfortunately for them, the six National Guardsmen disembarked directly after her. Dressed in their uniforms, and with loaded weapons.

The no doubt perturbed Mayor Stewart invited her up the hill to a dance hall. Everyone present followed where she stepped up to the bandstand, pulled out a paper and began to read:

The townspeople stood stunned at such a thing. The ever polite Miss Hobbs asked the city council to resign. Mayor Stewart calmly arose from his seat and declared that he would not do so. The rest of the city council followed and declared that they would not close their saloons. This was on the advice of James Nichols, a law partner of District Attorney Godwin

With his no doubt years of practice at whipping recruits into shape, and his stint in the prison, Lieutenant Colonel Lawson immediately ordered the men to unbuckle the holsters of their guns. He strode to the front of the room and tacked a proclamation of Martial Law on the wall.

The townsmen quietly relinquished their weapons at the door. Miss Hobbs returned on the 4:00 PM train to Baker, spent the night in the Geiser Grand Hotel and returned to Portland the next day.

In the meantime Lawson and his men locked up the saloons (no word if they locked up Martin Knezevich’s too,) and posted guards all around.

The next morning Attorney Nicolas obtained an injunction against the Govenor’s actions. Col. Lawson received the telegram informing him of such. It ordered himself, Miss Hobbs and Governor west to appear in the Baker County Court to explain what right they had to close the saloons.

In anger Lawson ripped the telegram into shreds and seized the town depot to censor telephone and telegraph messages. He then wired for more troops based on an erroneous report by the Oregonian that Sheriff Rand was putting together a posse. Sheriff Rand later disavowed the news saying he would not risk any lives over this matter. But Governor West requested a hearing to remove him from office and appointed Miss Hobbs to represent the State as special counsel.

The next day ten (or twenty depending on the source) more soldiers arrived in the town. They immediately began packing up all the liquor in town, including all the gambling equipment and even two “obscene” paintings that had been patriotically draped with American flags in one of the saloons. It was all loaded into a boxcar and sent to the Baker City dump where it was later burned. Over 10,000 pounds of alcohol were confiscated.

On January 8th 1914, Sheriff Rand and a Portland attorney representing Governor West met in nearby Huntington. They reached an agreement to reduce the number of National Guardsmen to 4. Circuit Judge Anderson ruled on the 19th of the same month that the courts could not interfere with the Governor’s right to declare Martial Law.

The saloon owners later filed against the Governor to recover $8000 for lost liquor but the Baker County Circuit Court and the Oregon Supreme court both ruled that Governor West was within his rights. Soon afterwards the remaining saloons were burned down (no word if it was accidental or on purpose,) and the town continued to die it’s slow death.

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