Miss Hobbs and the Gunslingers

The indomitable Fern Hobbs, shown here as a member of the Salvation Army in Paris, c. 1918. When Miss Hobbs came to town, the saloons were shut down. Photograph courtesy John De Farrari

Copperfield, Oregon, near the southern end of Hells Canyon, was a small and struggling town in late 1913, its economy based primarily on alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. "It was a wild and lawless place," writes historian Joe Blakely, and the setting for a tense and colorful chapter of Oregon history. Unhappy town residents wrote letters to Oregon's fourteenth governor, Oswald West, complaining that the city was being run by its saloonkeepers, making it an undesirable place to live. What happened next is recounted below in an excerpt condensed from Blakely's book Oswald West: Governor of Oregon 1911–1915 (CraneDance Publications, 2012). Blakely retired from the UO after serving for 13 years in the Office of Public Safety.

The letters upset West, a man who had promised his mother never to drink a drop of alcohol. This was the governor whose greatest unfulfilled wish was to shoot a bartender or blow up a brewery; the very same governor who told a temperance crowd he was a one-term governor, and "we are all going to have a lot of fun during my remaining time in office"; the same governor who ran the moral crusades in Portland, cracking down on illicit alcohol sales. Some people joked about Governor West, saying he was just bluffing to get attention. But the majority of people in Oregon loved and supported Oswald West. Oregon was decidedly leaning toward prohibition. So when the governor received the letters from Copperfield, he seized the opportunity to push for his agenda.

The governor fired off a telegram to the six-foot-six-inch tall Baker County sheriff, Ed Rand, on December 21, 1913: "You are hereby directed to close at once and keep closed until further notice, all saloons and other places in said town where intoxicating liquors are sold." The governor gave the sheriff until Christmas.

When nothing had been done by the deadline, tension mounted. Baker County sheriff Rand and District Attorney C. T. Godwin waffled, saying they would be acting illegally if they closed down properly licensed saloons in a "wet" town. They declined to obey the governor's order, claiming the unrest was just a feud between three saloonkeepers that would be resolved without interference. Besides, they thought the governor was bluffing.

If the sheriff of Baker County would not close down Copperfield's saloons, the governor told the press, then he would send his five-foot-three-inch tall, 104-pound private secretary, Miss Fern Hobbs, to do the work. The media howled and the people laughed. The authorities of Baker County dragged their feet, certain that a petite woman could not close down the wildest saloons in the state of Oregon. But the governor knew how to use the press. So he pushed the story that local Baker officials were refusing to act. Headlines blazed across Oregon and the nation. The story set the telegraph lines abuzz. David had challenged Goliath in the rugged outback of Oregon. A photograph of the petite secretary was sent to every Oregon newspaper. Her image appeared to be that of a teenage schoolgirl. Could she confront a ruthless and lawless town and shut it down?

In fact, the 28-year-old Miss Hobbs was not an ordinary secretary. Left on her own at the age of 12, she completed her high school education, and had fought her way through life working as a governess for a wealthy family, before learning stenography and typing. She became a secretary to the president of the Portland Title Guarantee and Trust Company. Because of her outstanding work, she moved to the Ladd Estate Company. All this time she was caring for her younger brother and sister, seeing to their education. Next came her job at the Capitol. She continued to work hard, obtaining a law degree at Willamette University, successfully passing the bar in 1913. Although on the outside she was diminutive, on the inside she was fiercely determined.

On December 31, the press hounded the governor, "Will Miss Hobbs enter the saloons?"

"I don't know," the governor responded, "It will be up to her, and, as I said before, she will close the town." Just in case something unpredictable happened, the governor prepared the proclamation that would give him authority to call out the militia.

On Thursday, January 1, as Fern Hobbs prepared to leave Portland on the train, an Oregonianreporter asked, "Are you armed?"

"Armed?" she replied. "Well, yes; I am. I have a dressing bag, a portfolio, and an umbrella."

"How do you propose to proceed?"

"Well," she said with a smile, "I guess I will proceed to Baker and from there to Copperfield."

"When you get to Copperfield, what will you do?"

"Close the saloons," she said.

"Who are you going to have help you?"

"I am alone."

The resourceful reporter discovered a little later that also on the train, dressed in civilian clothes, were Oregon State Prison superintendent Berton K. Lawson and five veteran antisaloon crusaders. The Baker Morning Democrat jumped on the story, reporting on Friday morning, January 2, "west is sending an army to copperfield today."

"At any rate," the Baker Morning Democrat surmised, "today will be a big day in Copperfield, for the residents are expecting only one lone female to close up the town." Preceding Miss Hobbs to Copperfield was a telegram sent by Governor West, addressed to the mayor of Copperfield. He wrote, "Miss Fern Hobbs my private secretary will arrive your city two fifty p.m. today. Would request you kindly arrange for a public meeting so she may meet the members of the city council and yourself together with the citizens of the city and deliver a message from this office. Governor West."

Saloonkeepers H. A. Stewart and William Wiegant, also known as the mayor and city councilman of Copperfield, were defiant. Overhead, dark clouds threatened rain and snow. Miss Hobbs's train was about to arrive. The saloon owners had prepared for the occasion by draping patriotic flags in conspicuous places. The saloons were festooned with pink and blue ribbons, with cut flowers displayed on their bars. Finally, on Friday afternoon, January 2, 1914, Miss Hobbs arrived in Copperfield. Steam pulsed from the train's engine. Every person in town showed up to greet the governor's now-famous private secretary. Snow began to fall. Across the state of Oregon, everyone was holding their breath, for after all, this was surely the most momentous event to take place in Oregon since statehood.

Wearing a fur coat, hat, and black boots, and carrying a briefcase, Miss Fern Hobbs stepped down from the train. At 2:30 p.m. Mayor H. A. Stewart held an umbrella to escort Miss Hobbs to the meeting hall. Trailing behind were the residents of Copperfield. The meeting room had been quickly reorganized from a dance hall to a makeshift city hall. All present, including a few journalists, jammed into the building. Most of the men were fully armed. A rostrum stood at one end of the room. A courageous Miss Hobbs stepped right up to the rostrum and said, "I have been sent here as Governor West's representative with a message addressed to the mayor and city council, which I wish to read to the assembly before delivering it to the mayor." Miss Hobbs then read the governor's message and passed out letters of resignation for the city council to sign.

The mayor and city council members refused to sign them, and would not close down their saloons. So, Miss Hobbs declared martial law. She turned the meeting over to Colonel Lawson. He read the governor's prepared proclamation establishing martial law and posted it on a wall. One reporter wrote that the colonel shouted, "Women had better leave the room." Then the colonel's men searched and disarmed every person in the hall as they left.

During the presentation, the other militiamen had been closing the saloons, padlocking them, and confiscating weapons. According to the Oregon Blue Book, more than 170 weapons were seized in the town. All the saloons were closed and city officials were placed under arrest. At 4 p.m., holding her own umbrella, Miss Hobbs hurriedly returned to the waiting train for the return trip to Baker.

The historic confrontation between Miss Fern Hobbs and the gunslingers and saloon owners made the front pages of newspapers across the nation. The New York Times reported on January 3, "GIRL PUTS TOWN UNDER MARTIAL LAW."