At the 1908 Niles Hotel, newly restored in this Modoc County outpost of 2,700 residents, cattlemen in spurred boots and leather chaps are back at the saloon.
New local owners resurrected the long-shuttered hotel, remodeling rooms with ornate furnishings and reopening its tavern. They placed an American flag on a giant mounted elk in the saloon, where they serve up beer and hard liquor at a polished bar adorned with a sign: “If you’re drinking to forget, please pay in advance.”
These days, people in Modoc County and its neighbor county to the west, Siskiyou, are aiming to pull off a decidedly more stunning do-over. Last month, supervisors in the remote counties passed formal declarations affirming their desire to “start over” by withdrawing from California.
This improbable political rebellion, which seeks to recruit other counties to form a new State of Jefferson, is stoked with regional folklore.
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It recalls the time, in 1941, when ornery residents in several counties in far Northern California and Southern Oregon staged a “secession.” They named a retired judge from Crescent City as governor. Men with hunting rifles were stationed at mythical state borders. They raised the flag of Jefferson – marked with two Xs to protest the double-crossing politicians in Sacramento and Salem who failed to build roads for copper mining.
This year, on Sept. 3 and Sept. 23, respectively, county supervisors in Siskiyou and Modoc passed declarations supporting withdrawal from California as a first step toward forming the State of Jefferson. Enacted before packed galleries, the declarations asserted that state lawmakers neglected to represent the interests of “rural and frontier counties” by failing to protect property and water rights, passing gun restrictions and approving an “illegal fire tax.”
The declarations also decried proposals endorsed by the U.S. Interior Department to remove four hydroelectric dams on the Klamath River in southwestern Oregon to restore historic spawning habitat for salmon and steelhead, a plan some ranchers view as a theft of water from local agriculture.
“We had a standing-room-only crowd and all but two people were in favor of it,” said Modoc board chairwoman Geri Byrne, who endorsed the declaration that called for “protecting the rights, liberty, public health and safety of the people of a new State of Jefferson.”
“The board members, whether they think it will happen or not, all voted for it because that’s what the citizens want,” Byrne said.
In Alturas, cattlemen stopping at the Niles Hotel offered another motive for the upstart revolt: anger over lost traditions.
For 11 years, the Niles, the grand palace in this timber and ranching town near the Oregon border, lay abandoned. Its boarded-up windows fairly wept over the generational loss of logging mills that had sent tired and thirsty workers into Alturas and once supported three local car dealerships – compared to the current single sales lot with its two lonely pickups.
In Modoc County, earnings from timber harvests plummeted from $35.4 million in 1994 to $4.5 million in 2011, with production a fraction of logging heydays in the 1970s and 1980s. These days, more than 18 percent of residents live in poverty. In Siskiyou, timber revenues dropped from $62.6 million in 1994 to $39.2 million in 2011. Seventeen percent of residents live in poverty.
Mike LaGrande, a Colusa County rancher with a wide-brimmed hat and weathered features who had just finished driving a herd of cattle to grazing lands near Alturas, looked over the town’s restored hotel with his emotions torn.
“When I was a little boy, this was the place, the Niles Hotel,” he said. “Everyone stayed here. There were poker games upstairs. This was the dream. People came to town more. They looked for things to rally around.”
The old cowboy finished on a downer.
“It was all before timber was run out of this county,” LaGrande said. “We ranchers and farmers have seen what the environmentalists have done. We feel we are next. They want us off the public lands. They want our water.”
A breakaway spirit
Nearby, at the sprawling Modoc Cattle Auction, the notion of the State of Jefferson stirred a young cowboy. “If only it were true,” he shouted as he brought his horse to a gallop, herding straggling cows into livestock pens.
With 9,300 residents, Modoc County has the third smallest population among California’s 58 counties. Siskiyou is not much bigger: the 14th smallest with 44,000 residents. But some diehard believers think they can pull off statehood.
Such a feat would require approval of the California Legislature, as well as lawmakers in Oregon if counties there join the Jefferson movement, and ultimately passage by Congress. The last time that happened was in 1863, when West Virginia broke from Virginia during the Civil War. So far, no Oregon counties have officially signed on to the new effort.
Peter Laufer, author of a recent book on the region, “The Elusive State of Jefferson,” said its breakaway spirit reflects the bitter political climate and an enduring myth that the 1941 Jefferson statehood drive would have succeeded if it weren’t abruptly dropped after the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor and America entered World War II.
“The Jefferson region is a metaphor for the divisiveness around the country,” said Laufer, a journalism professor at the University of Oregon. “And there are conflicts between the loggers, the fishermen, the environmentalists, the equity flight re-settlers from urban California and the descendants of the Oregon Trail. All these people have conflicting interests and they act as if they are unresolvable.”
In Mount Shasta city, Kathleen Hitt, conservation director for the Siskiyou Land Trust, worries that “frustration and emotion” fanned by the State of Jefferson movement could upset the organization’s efforts to work cooperatively with property owners to purchase and preserve forest lands and wildlife habitat. “I think the State of Jefferson is very fear-driven and it shuts the door on conversation,” she said.
In the Modoc town of Lookout, State of Jefferson supporter Gary Monchamp, whose family for generations ran the former Lookout Logging Co., blames the government for the region’s decline. He brings together his thumb and middle finger, cut in half in a logging accident long ago, to describe the inch-thick stack of paperwork he says California requires for even small logging jobs on private property.
“Their utopian philosophy in Sacramento just doesn’t apply here,” Monchamp said. “California doesn’t want our timber, yet they want redwood decks. They don’t want cattle grazing. Yet they want leather belts and beef and Jell-O.”
‘The greater good’
The same economic challenges that drive this secessionist movement raise questions about whether the region could support itself as a new state. Both Modoc and Siskiyou counties get far more money from California in state social services than residents pay in state income and sales taxes. And while farming in the area generates more than $85 million in annual earnings, government is the largest employer. County, state and federal jobs account for more than one-third of the labor force.
Yet in the Siskiyou County seat of Yreka, a new banner in a shop on downtown Miner Street welcomes visitors to “the Capital of the State of Jefferson.” An accompanying sign announces a petition drive to prepare a “territorial government” for the coming state.
Blocks away, Mark Baird, owner of Yreka’s FM country and classic rock Buffalo Radio, raises the classic 1941 Jefferson flag outside the station.
Baird, 61, is a 747 cargo pilot and a cattle and buffalo rancher. He helped draft the declarations passed in Siskiyou and Modoc and is trying to rally other northern counties to join, often enumerating rural residents’ exasperation over legislative actions in Sacramento.
He blasts firearms legislation that treats “my ground squirrel gun” as if it were “a military weapon” and expresses incredulity over a new law protecting bathroom choices for transgender children. “We look at things like that and are horrified,” he said.
He insists the State of Jefferson is the answer to revive logging, protect ranching and lure new businesses. He bristles at suggestions that these counties need to subsist on social services.
“It’s absolutely infuriating to people up here, this idea that we’re little children and we must have our hands held out,” Baird said. “Well, we would make our own way. We are intelligent, creative, hardworking people, and without the morass of failed social engineering experiments here, we would do fine.”
For now, the reopened Niles Hotel is the newest experiment in this region of Jefferson. Jim Cavasso, owner of Modoc Steel & Supply, and his wife, Elizabeth, a 37-year employee with the U.S. Forest Service, brought the hotel back to life with 500 gallons of paint and 800 pounds of grout. They collected antiques to furnish it. Local residents donated heirlooms, including a baby grand piano rumored to have been danced upon by Gene Kelly.
The couple is unsure about the State of Jefferson. Jim Cavasso wonders if the plan can clear “the bureaucratic bull.” His wife said, “It has to be for the greater good, not just anger.” But they agree the region needs a comeback story.
“People like Jim and I are rallying,” Elizabeth said. “People say just seeing this hotel come back gives them faith.”