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New OPB Documentary Chronicles The Story Of Fern Hobbs And The Lawless Oregon Town She Cleaned Up


OPB is premiering a new historical documentary “Fern Hobbs and the Snake River Showdown,” which profiles the colorful career of Oregon attorney Fern Hobbs and her seemingly impossible mission to clean up Copperfield, a notoriously wild Oregon town.

This half-hour “Oregon Experience” documentary is available to watch online now at www.opb.org/fernhobbs and it airs on OPB TV Monday, October 21 at 9 p.m. 

In December 1913, the tiny town of Copperfield came under intense scrutiny by Oregon Governor Oswald West. Located on the Snake River in remote eastern Baker County, the town had a notorious reputation as being rough and wild.  

During its heyday, Copperfield was a booming construction camp. Big copper strikes nearby had sparked a keen interest in the area by local developers. To remove the copper ore, they decided to build a railroad branch to town and a small dam and power plant for electricity. The projects brought workers to the area in droves, driving the population to about 1,000 people by 1907.  

Entrepreneurs built hotels, stores, saloons and brothels, and provided services. Drinking and illegal gambling fueled the town, and daily brawls between construction crews provided entertainment. According to an area newspaper, Copperfield was “the quintessence of all that is foul and immoral.”  

As construction projects began wrapping up, Copperfield’s population dropped to less than a hundred people. Fewer patrons to the remaining saloons meant stiff competition for business.

Copperfield’s mayor and some of the city councilors were in the saloon business and controlled the town to their advantage. They made the laws granting liquor licenses to themselves but not to competing businesses. Arson was blamed for one saloon burning to the ground.   

Progressive Oregon governor and fervent prohibitionist Oswald West got wind of the problems in Copperfield when local families began complaining about the general mayhem of the town.A petition signed by half the town and sent to Governor West would bring action. 

During Copperfield’s rise as a bastion of immorality, Fern Hobbs was quietly gaining her own notoriety building an impressive career. Hired by West as his chief clerk in 1911, she was soon promoted to private secretary earning the highest salary of any woman in public service in the country at the time. 

In a well-planned scheme, West sent Hobbs to Copperfield to demand the resignation of the mayor and certain city councilors; close the saloons and declare martial law if necessary. The announcement created a firestorm of disbelief and generated headlines across the country.   

This new OPB documentary chronicles Hobbs’ mission to tame the rough and lawless town with a surprise entourage ready to carry out the Governor’s plan.“Fern Hobbs” features archival film, photographs and interviews with: 

  • John DeFerrari, Fern Hobbs’ great-nephew 
  • Gary Dielman, local historian, Baker City
  • Finn J.D. John, instructor, Oregon State University
  • Heather Mayer, historian, Portland Community College 

Fern Hobbs and the Snake River Showdown” airs on OPB TV Monday, October 21 at 9 p.m. and is available to watch online now at opb.org/fernhobbs. The film is written and produced by Nadine Jelsing and edited by Lisa Suinn Kallem.

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