Oregon Experience

Fern Hobbs and the Snake River showdown

By Nadine Jelsing (OPB)
Oct. 10, 2019 1:45 p.m.

In December 1913, a tiny town called Copperfield in eastern Baker County found itself on a collision course with Oregon Gov. Oswald West. Located on the border of Oregon and Idaho, Copperfield had earned a notorious reputation as rough, wild and wide open.

Copperfield, Oregon, 1907

Copperfield, Oregon, 1907

Courtesy: Baker County Library District, www.bakerlib.org  

During its heyday, the town was a booming construction camp. Big copper strikes nearby had generated an interest in the area by local developers who were soon building a railroad branch line to town, a small dam and power plant.

The massive projects brought workers to the area in droves driving the population to about 1,000 people by 1907.

Entrepreneurs built hotels and stores; 11 saloons and as many brothels. Daily brawls between rival construction crews provided entertainment. Drinking and illegal gambling fueled the town at night.

Tunnel at Oxbow dam under construction.

Tunnel at Oxbow dam under construction.

Courtesy: Oregon Historical Society, OrHi 58358

By early 1913 the construction projects were wrapping up and the population dropped to less than a hundred people. But Copperfield retained its rowdy reputation thanks to help from its city managers.

“There were these saloons competing with each other. They were rivals but the mayor and several of the city councilors were running the saloons. They’re the ones making the laws of the town, and the guy getting all the business, they made laws that put him out of business.”

Gary Dielman, local historian

A corrupt town in remote eastern Oregon could have been the end of the story. But the time was right for a moral reckoning.

Prohibition – one of the most contentious issues of the time was gaining support across the nation including in Oregon. West was considered a progressive governor – and a fervent prohibitionist – once declaring his unfulfilled wish was to shoot a bartender.

“There was really a sense by reformers about what was appropriate kind of moral behavior and morality was a really large part of progressive reform. It was also really a movement of the middle class to kind of reshape society into a kind of white, middle class, Protestant image in a lot of ways.”

Heather Mayer, historian, Portland Community College

Back in Copperfield, law-abiding families were becoming increasingly alarmed at saloon keepers selling liquor to underage boys, businesses open on Sundays and unexplained fires threatening property.

Early complaints to local officials had fallen on deaf ears and the closest law enforcement was in the city of Baker – a good 150 miles away by rail.

On the other side of the state, a young woman named Fern Hobbs was gaining her own notoriety building a successful business career. She was born in Nebraska in 1883 – the daughter of John Alden and Cora Hobbs – her father being a direct descendant of John Alden from the Mayflower. The family eventually settled in Oregon near Hillsboro.

By 1911 Fern Hobbs was working as chief clerk for West. She studied law in her spare time, earning her degree from Willamette University in 1913.

That same year West promoted her to be his private secretary – a prestigious position traditionally held by a man. Her promotion and annual $3,000 salary generated headlines.

Fern Hobbs at work, 1913.

Fern Hobbs at work, 1913.

According to the Salem Capital Journal, she was "the first woman in the state to receive an important political appointment since the passage of the law enfranchising women [in 1912]."

Although Fern Hobbs had been quoted as being opposed to suffrage in 1911 – saying women had too many other things to worry about in their lives – her opinion would change.

“I know that within a year or two she had a very different view on the matter and clearly believed that it was a good thing that women’s suffrage had been achieved in Oregon and that it ought to be extended throughout the country.”


John DeFerrari, great-nephew of Fern Hobbs

By 1913, West was sending Fern to Washington, D.C., as his official representative on state matters. She was becoming an early symbol of what women could achieve and accomplish in her own quiet way.

“During this time period we see many women who are well known who are traveling the country; advocating for reforms; who are speaking out publicly. Fern was not one of these. So she wasn’t leading a movement but she was leading by example.”

Heather Mayer, historian, Portland Community College

“Nobody knows how hard I have worked. I am not lamenting it but merely emphasize that work is needful if a woman is to demonstrate that she can do the things in public life that a man can do.”

Fern Hobbs

By late 1913 the law-abiding citizens of Copperfield had appealed directly to West for help in cleaning up the town. Receiving no cooperation from the Baker County Sheriff, the governor announced that he was sending Hobbs, his petite 30-year-old secretary, to demand the resignations of corrupt city officials, close the saloons and declare martial law if necessary.

Miss Hobbs Served Governor's Ultimatum.

Miss Hobbs Served Governor's Ultimatum.

The Spokesman Review, January 18, 1914

The mission seemed impossible and captured the imaginations of newspaper reporters across the country. No one knew what would happen when Hobbs arrived to carry out the governor's demands; and both the governor and Fern declined to give further details of a well-planned scheme.

As the tale unfolded with surprising twists and turns, Copperfield surrendered under martial law; and Fern returned to Salem as an international celebrity. She was suddenly the "girl who had tamed a lawless town."

Through the years, Fern always considered her short time in Copperfield as personally and professionally unimportant. She continued forging a long and remarkable career that included volunteering during WWI to help with the war effort both in Oregon and Europe.

Miss Fern Hobbs

Miss Fern Hobbs

Courtesy: John DeFerrari

“She was an experienced lawyer who could have been in private practice doing well paying land issues. But she didn’t go down the route of money. Fern’s passion was helping people. That was when she was most happy. She wanted to make a difference in the world and show that a woman could do these things as well as a man.”

John DeFerrari, great-nephew of Fern Hobbs

“Fern Hobbs and the Snake River Showdown” weaves together the story of a governor’s crusade, a lawless town in the wilds of Eastern Oregon and a young woman pioneering her own path in life.

Resources And Information

Oregon State Archives: The Copperfield Controversy

Oregon Encyclopedia: Fern Hobbs

Baker County Library

Baker Heritage Museum

Offbeat Oregon History: Martial law for three saloons

Shepard, Daniel Joseph, “A Town on Fire: The Copperfield Affair of 1914,” (2015). Dissertations and Theses. Paper 2507, Portland State University.

Holbrook, Stewart, "The Affair at Copperfield." In "Wildmen, Wobblies and Whistle Punks." Corvallis: Oregon State University Press, 1992.

Blakely, Joe R., “The Copperfield Incident.” InOswald West, Governor of Oregon 1911-1915, His Life and Legacy.” Crane Dance Publications, 2012.