Copperfield Controversy

Governor Lister and Governor Oswald West stand on a rocky shore wearing overcoats and tall hats.
Gov. Lister of Washington and Gov. West, Celilo Falls, 1912 (Oregon State Library photo)

Martial Law Declared

Reform-minded Governor Oswald West once declared his ambition to "shoot a bartender." Although no shots were fired, actions he took toward Copperfield, a small town northeast of Baker County, earned him a reputation for being tough on liquor. In response to complaints from residents about lawless behavior, West signed a proclamation declaring martial law on Dec. 31, 1913:

He then attempted to void the incorporation of Copperfield:

His actions caused such a furor that newspapers as far away as New York City covered it on their front pages. Meanwhile, West's demands for local assistance proved fruitless:

Fern Hobbs Takes on Copperfield

Governor West sent Fern Hobbs, his personal secretary, with a detachment of 5 National Guard troops to Copperfield to demand the resignation of city officials. 


Cartoon of Fern Hobbs walking resolutely by 4 angry looking men. She carries an umbrella and briefcase.
Cartoon of Fern Hobbs reads, "Heavily armed frontiersmen lined the walls as the young woman marched across to the platform to read proclamation" (Oregonian, April 5, 1936).
The mayor and most of the city council were involved in the saloon business. City officials refused to resign and were arrested by the National Guard.

The diminutive Miss Hobbs, only 5'4" tall and weighing less than 100 pounds managed to subdue wide-open Copperfield in a matter of hours. Her effectiveness amazed one local observer:

Although she left town by train the same day she arrived, the National Guard remained in Copperfield for several months bolstered by an additional attachment of 20 men. A morning report of the Copperfield Detachment displays early troop movements:

A later report shows a routine setting in as the occupation continued:

In March the National Guard commander turned over the keys of the city to a civilian acting mayor. More than a year later on Jan. 21, 1915, Governor James Withycombe officially revoked the declaration of martial law.

Governor's Actions Challenged in Oregon Supreme Court

Photo of Fern from Oregonian "Governor's Secretary who will try to close up Copperfield"
Fern Hobbs: Oregonian, 1914.
State officials criticized Governor West for sending Miss Hobbs, since she was only his personal secretary. Lawsuits against the Governor and several of the "principals" including Miss Hobbs were filed by William Weigard, a Copperfield city council member and saloon proprietor. 

The suits challenged the Governor's authority to declare martial law. The Baker County Circuit Court found that powers granted to the governor "cannot be taken away from him by the court, even should he abuse powers." It also maintained that the National Guard assumed the position of peace officers in Copperfield and that the governor could "act in his own discretion" as head of the executive branch of state government.

The case eventually went all the way to the Oregon Supreme Court. The Supreme Court upheld the lower court rulings that found the Governor had acted within his authority as Chief Executive.

Learn More

Article about Governor being upheld by Baker judge from Jan. 20, 1914 newspaper: Historic Oregon Newspapers.

Books

Holbrook, Stewart Hall. Wildmen, Wobblies, and Whistle Punks: Stewart Holbrook's Lowbrow Northwest. Corvallis, Oregon: Oregon State University Press, 1992. Newspaper article on Copperfield controversy: Baker Record-Courier, August 5, 1965. "The Affair at Copperfield." Woman's Day, January 1952.