Lost Calif. state still has independent streak 60 years later
By Michelle Locke
YREKA, Calif. — In extreme Northern California, far from the bright lights of Hollywood and the foggy charms of San Francisco, is a place unknown to most people: a handful of counties that once sought to make themselves into a separate state called Jefferson.
The idea lasted only a few days in 1941 before it was quashed by the attack on Pearl Harbor. But for a few who remember its history, the movement embodies the mindset of this sparsely populated country that still longs for more autonomy.
"We’ve always fostered an independent streak up here," said Pete LaFortune, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Yreka (pronounced why-REEK-ah), about 270 miles north of San Francisco.
More than six decades later, many residents of the mountainous region along the California-Oregon border continue to complain that their concerns are overlooked and undervalued by decision makers in more populated areas.
The State of Jefferson began as part publicity stunt, part political gesture. Even today, the movement is made up of tourist-friendly whimsy intertwined with more serious themes of discontent.
In the Palace Barber Shop on Yreka’s main drag hangs an animal skull decorated with the XX brand adopted by the Jeffersonians of 1941 to signify their disgust with being "double-crossed" by authorities.
"A lot of the laws and different things that affect us are voted on by people who’ve never been here and don’t know anything about us," said John Lisle, a barber at the shop, which stands on a site that is said to have offered haircuts since Yreka was a Gold Rush town.
Another barber, Richard Pease, agreed: "When we vote on something, it doesn’t make much difference at all because one precinct down there outnumbers the whole county here. You vote, but you feel like your vote is going down the tube."
Siskiyou County, home to Yreka, has about 46,000 residents spread over 6,400 square miles. Although registered Republicans have only a modest edge over registered Democrats, residents are often at odds with more liberal parts of the state.
The 1941 secessionists were angry about the region’s poor roads, which became useless in winter.
"Our Roads are Not Passable, Hardly Jackassable," went the rallying cry.
These days, it’s not hard to get to Yreka. Interstate 5, which runs the length of California, is a long, smooth route through fir-covered hills and Mount Shasta, a popular recreation spot.
But there is plenty of resentment simmering over long-standing government limits on logging and fishing, and a proposal to rip out a series of hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River to help struggling salmon runs.
Bill Overman, chairman of the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors, is among those concerned that removing the dams will hurt property values for people living along the reservoirs. Like previous leaders, he chafes at the feeling that outside forces are calling the shots.
"We would like to be able to take care of our resources and be able to manage them properly, and we can do that if we’re just allowed to," Overman said.
The idea of forming a separate state out of the counties in far Northern California and southern Oregon has come up several times in the past.
"It’s really a very, very old historical tradition in America that people sort of removed from the center of power resent the center of power," said Jay Mullen, professor of history at Southern Oregon University.
The 1941 movement got started when Gilbert Gable, mayor of Port Orford, Ore., announced that a number of Oregon counties should join with California neighbors to form a new state. His idea was to draw attention to the region’s rotten roads.
The idea caught fire, especially in Siskiyou County, and Yreka became the nascent state’s temporary capital.
Jefferson’s attempt to secede got national attention. San Francisco Chronicle reporter Stanton Delaplane won the Pulitzer Prize in 1942 for his articles about the rebellious movement.
But with the Dec. 7, 1941, attack on Pearl Harbor, the movement was shelved.
Today, the brief chapter is memorialized on a Web site, jeffersonstate.com, and a barn south of Yreka painted with the name "State of Jefferson." It’s also recalled in the name of Jefferson Public Radio, based in Ashland, Ore. License plate holders reading "resident of the State of Jefferson" are a popular item.
Still, the Chamber of Commerce’s LaFortune doesn’t expect to see citizens marching on Sacramento anytime soon.
"It’s more mythical than anything else," he said. "The State of Jefferson is that state of independence. It’s that state of being able to take care of yourself — the Jeffersonian ideals that the government is not the answer. People are the answer."
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