As I traveled I-5 recently from Oregon into California, I saw an intriguing sign along the road, declaring “The State of Jefferson,” and I remembered I was in “Gail Jenner Country.” Gail is a fellow member of Women Writing the West and the author of two books about the “mythical State of Jefferson,” Images of the State of Jefferson and The State of Jefferson: Then and Now. Gail and her family also run a working ranch in the Siskiyous. I talked with Gail about her books.
What motivated you to write about this “51st State?”
It’s part of ‘who we are’ up here in NORTHERN California (350 mi. north of San Francisco and about 320 miles north of Sacramento). We here tend to identify more with culture/geography/lifestyle of southern Oregon than with the rest of California. Likewise, southern Oregon identifies more with us than with much of the rest of their state. Those two regions have often felt ‘destined’ to become the State of Jefferson and there are many people who have attempted to pursue such a state delineation.
I understand this “State” came about with an attempted secession of Northern California and Southern Oregon in 1941. What prompted this movement?
Actually, the struggle to establish a separate state (by any number of names) has gone on for 150 years, since the days of the California and Oregon gold rush. The first legal attempt occurred in 1852, when a bill was introduced into the California State Legislature at Vallejo. Though the bill failed, the notion did not, as was noted in the January 14, 1854 edition of The Mountain Herald (Yreka, California): “The citizens of the County of Siskiyou and State of California are requested to meet at the Yreka Hotel, in Yreka, on Saturday evening, the 14th of January next, at 6 o’clock P.M., for the purpose of taking measures to secure the formation, at an early day, of a new Territory out of certain portions of Northern California and Southern Oregon…”
The better-known movement came later, however, as expressed by Judge John L. Childs, who stated in his “inaugural” address as the “first elected governor” of the hopeful state on December 4, 1941: “The State of Jefferson is a natural division geographically, topographically, and emotionally. In many ways, a world unto itself: self-sufficient with enough water, fish, wildlife, farm, orchard land, mineral resources, and gumption to exist on its own.” The attempt to separate legally, however, failed, as the Pearl Harbor bombing occurred three days later and locals decided to put aside their differences. The movement was never seriously taken up again, except sporadically and without the support of enough voters to make it viable.
One interesting side note to the “movement” was that it made national headlines and even won a young reporter, Stanton Delaplane, of the San Francisco Chronicle, a Pulitzer Prize for journalism.
I noticed a headline in the archives, stating “In Far Northern California: Independence is a State of Mind.” Do the residents of this area still subscribe to the Jeffersonian ideals and way of life?
Today most “Jefferson staters” continue to seek recognition, if not in political terms, certainly in cultural terms. Some still dream of splitting the state into two – or three states. In the 1960s, there was an attempt to divide CA into three separate states, which even involved state legislators, but it also failed.
But there is other evidence that the dream lives on: Southern Oregon’s PBS Radio Station is officially named the Jefferson Public Radio Station; signs along Interstate 5 and local highways indicate they are part of the official “State of Jefferson Scenic Byway or Highway”; businesses sell Jefferson State memorabilia. There is a State of Jefferson Chamber of Commerce, although its meetings are more social events than political ones. The Pioneer Press, a Western Siskiyou County newspaper with its office in Fort Jones, California, is the “official headquarters” and flies the “state” flag daily (green with two X’s, signifying “Double-crossed” by the state capitals that seem to “ignore” the extreme portions of their states (OR/CA).
Most important are the attributes of the mythical State of Jefferson. People here are independent: most are outdoorsmen or loggers or ranchers; we still have a number of miners. Most people here struggle economically, although the number of retirees and artisans, who can make a living regardless of the economic conditions of the region, are moving in. Many are “far to the left” of the area’s traditional mainstream, but still, they are pretty independent in their thinking and want to maintain the quality of lifestyle found here. The area’s population is really diverse – which many outsiders don’t realize – and includes artists, musicians, hunters, fishermen, ranchers, several Native American tribes and reservations, loggers, retirees, federal workers, small business people, etc. We have a number of monasteries and retreats, plus camps that speak of the diverse faiths that abide here, too, but the over-riding characteristic that unites most people is the ideal that comes with living in such an area of rugged geographic and intense physical beauty. We are surrounded by mountains, with Mt. Shasta rising up out of the heart of the area. There are wilderness areas, the last of the wild rivers, mountain valleys and remote mountain canyons.
There is a bounty of wildlife, too, which (btw) cohabitates beautifully with cattle and ranching. In fact, most people don’t realize that 75% of ALL wildlife in the U.S. is protected because and by farmers/ranchers/landowners – NOT by the federal government, etc. We have a natural preserve on our ranch where THOUSANDS of birds nest and migrate to, including bald eagles, Canadian geese, swans and egrets, also songbirds and owls and hawks, plus beaver, muskrat and mink, deer, occasionally bear and elk. For two summers, we had a pair of elk “living” with the cows and when we would move the cows, the elk would travel along, until they neared the barns, then they’d take a detour and move out to another part of the ranch. We also have Sandhill Cranes now that come back each year. There are mountain lions that roam the hills nearby and bobcats and coyotes and foxes.
Did you find parallels between then and now?
Absolutely. One of the most fascinating aspects of this area is the love everyone has for local and regional history coupled with the love of the outdoors and the mountains/forests.
Our historical societies are hugely popular and active and many people (like my husband’s family) actually “continue to live their history.” The PAST is STILL part of the PRESENT. It’s an odd, but delightful sensation. We still use many of the same tools and antiques around the ranch. Items are not lost to the family and truly, they are the original recyclers. Farm families with histories like theirs continue to use and re-use. Also, people in this region still struggle SERIOUSLY with Sacramento and Salem, in regards to the issues that most concern them. It seems that the urban and “city” dwellers of the two states are dramatically opposed to “hearing” the people of this area or taking seriously any of their concerns. There have been two movements that speak to this point of view: The People for the U.S.A. or Take Back the West group, and the SOSS movement (Save Our Shasta and Scott Valleys and Towns).
Do you think modern residents would ever consider another movement to form their own state?
Not officially. As I said above, the region has an independent characteristic, but the powers that reside in the respective capitals (and legislators and urban areas) will NEVER let go of the rich regions found in this “state.” As mentioned above, the two groups that continually seek a voice in the state legislatures are about as independent a voice as will ever be heard.
What kind of research did you do for your books?
Tons of interviews and research into old books, old documents. My co-author, Bernita Tickner, is in her mid-70s and is a native and descendant of four generations of locals, dating back to the gold rush and early packing/mining days. Her husband’s family is also an old family, with roots that also go back to one of the local tribes. We also did a lot of traveling, but both of us have traveled this region a lot anyway, and have been here long enough to have a lot of insight.
I know you are a busy ranch wife. How do you find the time to write? Do you have a set schedule?
I tend to be a high energy person. As a fourth-generation rancher’s wife, I am deeply involved in agricultural groups, esp. the CattleWomen, who are focused on education and scholarships. I am a part-time history and English teacher and am involved in teaching and working through the county schools’ office on special projects.
But most of all, I am a ranch wife, a mother, and now a grandmother, so I am deeply involved with family and work. I raise a large garden; I cook (several days a week for 4-5 men) and I can and preserve a lot of my garden produce; I work with our horses, when I can (not nearly as often as I’d like); I work on the ranch (more when I’m needed, not every day), but usually when we work cows or take cows into the mountains (which we don’t really do anymore – but that’s another issue <G>); I do like to travel to see our daughter and her family or our college-aged son (we have one son who is now part of the ranch and is married with two little boys), or to see MY family (all over). I used to play tennis, but a bad back has eliminated that, so I exercise, etc., on my own or at the nearby fitness center. I also work at our local museum, but that is only a summer commitment and it’s actually given me another opportunity to do local research, esp. since I write an historical column for our local paper and I now write for our local NPR/Jefferson Public Radio’s historical series.
BUT, I do write nearly every day, sometimes early in the morning (I like to get up early), or late into the night – esp. if I have deadlines. I can write for hours or spend time rewriting/brainstorming, etc. (which I can do even while driving a hay truck!), so each day brings a different schedule. Actually, I have NO schedule, except that I write when/how I can.
What’s your next writing project?
I am revising a novel on Black Bart, which I wrote after collaborating on research with another historian (retired). It was “published” as a serial in the Paradise Post, a newspaper in the heart of Black Bart country. Since it seems to “cross” a lot of genre lines, we have since decided to try self-publishing the book. I’ve never done self-publishing, so this is a new venture, but the book has a natural audience all over CA and the “gold country.” Plus, there are NO novels about Black Bart, only collected bits of trivia and the same historical material, so the novel has garnered some real enthusiasm.
I’m also working on a screenplay. I have written one that has placed in a couple of writing contests, and I’m always writing about local history (small essays, etc.), and I have another novel and another script in the planning stages. Recently I wrote a couple of short stories that I’ve entered into contests.
Join us tomorrow for a glimpse into Gail’s working ranch life.