Women in History Month with Fern Hobbs

Every Saturday in March, I’ll be shining the spotlight on women who’ve done remarkable things in history, but their stories seem to have gotten lost along with you.

This week, I’d like to introduce you to Fern Hobbs.

 

In January 1914, Fern Hobbs became an international celebrity when her boss, Oregon Governor Oswald West, sent her as his personal representative to the unruly town of Copperfield, Oregon, where she played a key role in w hat would become known as the Copperfield Affair.

Fern was born in Bloomington, Nebraska to John Alden and Cora Brush Hobbs. The dates on her birth vary, but it appears to have been in May  1883. Her family moved to Salt Lake City when she was six. The family’s next move took them to Hillsboro, Oregon. Her father had financial struggles, so Fern helped raise her younger brother and sister, enrolling them in school. She supported them by working as a governess in Portland while studying stenography.

She got a job as secretary to the president of the Portland Title Guarantee and Trust Company, which failed while she worked there. Ben Olcott, appointed by Governor Chamberlain to represent the state in investigating the bank over the state’s assets, took note of Hobb’s strong loyalty to her employer.  After the bank’s failure, she worked as a governess for J. Wesley Ladd in Portland while she continued her studies.

Olcott, who managed Oswald West’s successful campaign for governor in 1910, recommend West hire Hobbs to work as his private stenographer. She was given the job and impressed the Governor so much, she became his private secretary two years later, making her the first woman in Oregon to hold an important political position. It also made her the highest-paid woman in public service in the United States, earning $3,000 per year (roughly $84,000 in todays dollars). By studying for a law degree in her spare time, Fern graduated from Willamette University and passed the bar in 1913.

Governor West soon sent her to Washington D.C. to represent the state, making her the first woman to represent a governor’s interests in the nation’s capital. She successfully negotiated  with congressional committees and the U.S. Department of the Interior to straighten out ownership issues around various parcels of land worth millions of dollars.

Later in the year, letters began to arrive for the governor from concerned citizens of a tiny town located near the south end of Hell’s Canyon on the Snake River. Copperfield had once been a booming construction camp where big copper strikes in the area had generated interest from developers. A railroad branch line, dam and power plant were soon constructed. The project brought hordes of workers to the area and the population by 1907 had reached about a thousand people.  Stores and hotels were opened, with reportedly eleven saloons and as many brothels. Brawls broke out daily. Drinking and illegal gambling provided entertainment. Then the construction projects wrapped up and the population plummeted to around eighty.

The economy became based primarily on alcohol, gambling, and prostitution, establishing a reputation for Copperfield as a wild, lawless place.

Residents who were unhappy with the turn the town had taken for the worse, penned letters to Governor West, complaining the city had been taking over by saloonkeepers and riffraff.

The governor could not abide alcohol and leaned heavily toward prohibition for the state. The letters became an opportunity for him to push his prohibition agenda. He sent a telegram to Baker County sheriff in December 1913, directing him to close and keep closed all saloons and establishments selling liquor in Copperfield. The sheriff was given a deadline of completing the task by Christmas.

When nothing had been done by the deadline, it angered the governor. The sheriff and and the district attorney declared it would be illegal to shut down properly licensed saloons in a “wet” town. They claimed the unrest in the town was a feud between a few saloonkeepers and they could resolve their issues without further interference. Threats were made to shoot the governor if he dared set foot in Copperfield.

Governor West then reportedly told the press he would send his diminutive secretary, Fern Hobbs, to demand the resignations of corrupt city officials, close the saloons, and declare martial law if necessary. The media had a field day with the proclamation and people scoffed at the governor’s plan. No one thought he’d actually do it, and they certainly didn’t think “little Miss Hobbs” could close down some of the wildest saloons in the West. The governor pushed the story of the Baker County officials refusing to act. Headlines soon popped up across the nation, highlighting a story of how David had challenged Goliath in the rugged hills of eastern Oregon. A photograph of petite Fern was in every Oregon newspapers.

Before she left for Copperfield, a reporter questioned Fern is she would go armed. She replied, “Armed? Well, yes; I am. I have a dressing bag, a portfolio and an umbrella.”

The governor sent a telegram, addressed to the mayor of Copperfield. He requested the mayor arrange a public meeting so Fern could address the mayor, city council and citizens to deliver the message from his office.

Saloonkeepers H. A. Stewart and William Wiegand, also known as the mayor and city councilman of Copperfield, weren’t pleased with the telegram. They draped patriotic flags in conspicuous places, and festooned the bars with pink and blue ribbons and cut flowers.

On January 2, 1914, Fern Hobbs arrived in Copperfield. According to an article in The Spokesman Review (January 19, 1914), all the residents of Copperfield were at the depot when she stepped off the train “dressed plainly in blue with a neat little hat covering her wealth of blonde hair… There was such a pretty smile in her blue eyes and such a womanly gentleness about her that, when she asked for the city officials, rude jest was turned to admiration.” Other reports say she wore a fur coat and black boots.

Accompanying Fern on the trip were Lieutenant Colonel B.K. Lawson of the Oregon National Guard, and five members of the coast artillery with rifles “locked and ready.”

The “welcoming committee” greeted her well armed, warned by the attorneys for Steward and Wiegand to use force if necessary to keep the saloons open.

When Fern requested a platform from which to speak, someone produced a soap box for her to stand on. It was cold. Snowing. But in a clear tone she stated she’d been sent by the governor.

Reportedly, gallantry won over pride and she was directed to speak  at “town hall” instead of a soap box in the street.

Mayor Stewart held an umbrella and escorted her to the meeting hall that had quickly been reorganized from a dance hall to a makeshift city hall.  A platform stood at one end of the room. Fern walked right up on it and according to an article from The Oregon Daily Journal published January 2, 1914, she said, “I have a proclamation here from the governor.”

The mayor told her to read it.

“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.” Fern read the complete message from the governor, and then presented typed letters of resignation she’d prepared on behalf of the city officials. The mayor declared he refused to sign without a hearing. Four of the other six council members also declined.

Colonel Lawson read the governor’s prepared proclamation establishing martial law and posted it on a wall. He declared all liquor in all saloons had to be ready to ship out of town by four the following afternoon, and demanding the confiscation of all weapons. The women who had attended the meeting were asked to leave the building.

Lawson’s declaration was the first time martial law had been  put into effect in Oregon since the Civil War.

While the meeting had taken place, the militia men who accompanied Lawson had been closing the saloons, padlocking doors, and confiscating weapons. .

The town was soon disarmed, order restored, gambling equipment was confiscated, and more than 170 weapons were seized. Fern left Lawson in charge and took the four o’clock train that afternoon back to Baker City where she officially removed Copperfield’s town officials before a judge before returning to Salem.

The Copperfield Affair became headline news not only in Oregon and across the nation, but also overseas.

Writer Stewart Holbrook reported: In England, the Copperfield story escaped all bounds. One read that Miss Hobbs took off for the hellish place in command of a full battery of field artillery, plus machine gunners, in a special train; that she snapped commands to her troops and had them unlimber and train the heavy pieces on the doomed city.

 

There was even a theatrical reenactment of the event, advertised in the Oregon Journal, January 28, 2014.

The actions of Governor West and Fern were challenged in court, but the Baker County circuit court determined the governor’s actions were within his powers and the Oregon Supreme Court agreed.

Petite Fern Hobbs became the girl who tamed a lawless town, even though she didn’t see the overwhelming importance of her actions in facing down an armed mob.

A few months after her visit to Copperfield, a fire of “unknown origin” destroyed several buildings. Two more fires occurred, and in 1927 the post office closed, leaving Copperfield as a ghost town. In 1965, the community of Oxbow was founded near the site of Copperfield when the Idaho Power Company was building the Oxbow Dam. Today, Copperfield Park includes 12 acres of manicured lawn, paved roads, terraced landscaping and numerous trees as well as a campsite.

Fern Hobbs had a long and remarkable career. In WWI she traveled with the Red Cross to France where she assisted with the war effort.

She died  April 10, 1964, in Portland and was and buried in the pioneer cemetery in Hillsboro.

 

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4 Responses

  1. Shanna this article is so interesting. It seems to me that Ms Fern Hobbs was a very brave lady because even in that time women were not looked upon as leaders or ones to make decisions.
    I’m looking forward to more of these great history lessons/stories.

  2. Fascinating Shanna. I have no doubt there are many women these days with Fern’s talent and heroism , but the world could certainly use a few more Governor Wests

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