Just off I-5 in Siskiyou County, a few miles south of Yreka, there’s a big barn filled with hay. On its roof is a big sign that says “State of Jefferson,” and it almost feels like a gateway to Yreka.
Up in far Northern California and southern Oregon, if you drive through the high desert, forests and mountain valleys, you’ll take the State of Jefferson Scenic Byway. You can check out the State of Jefferson jam band. If you’re searching for the public radio station, you’ll hear the announcer say, “You’re listening to the rhythm and news service of Jefferson Public Radio, committed to supporting lifelong learning and the arts in the mythical State of Jefferson since 1969.”
That’s because many people living there don’t really identify with California or Oregon. They say they live in the State of Jefferson. It’s an idea with a long history; there’s been talk of a separate state since the 1850s, and that talk continues. Earlier this month a group brought a resolution to the Siskiyou County Board of Supervisors to withdraw from California and start over.
Now, some young people trying to make a life there incorporate that State of Jefferson heritage while looking forward.
Sam Lanier is a young entrepreneur. On a Saturday morning, he’s at his office in the historic railroad town of Dunsmuir. This is a heavily forested region, and for decades logging was a robust industry. But unlike some people here who get nostalgic or angry about logging’s decline, Lanier is pragmatic.
“We’re not going to see logging come back. It’s too massive a change to bring back the mills,” he says. “That’s not my hope. OK, we have these lands, what can we do with these lands?”
Lanier has wildfires on his mind. Fires draw business in the summer when crews come into towns needing food, lodging and supplies, but Lanier and his partners started a year-round tech company called FireWhat? in 2010. The business attracts people from across the country to its training sessions for fighting wildfires. It also runs an app and the website wildlandfire.com, which has a forum for firefighters and consolidates information about fires onto maps. Last year, the site had 56 million hits. That kind of success is encouraging in this region where many worry that high unemployment will drive young people away.
“We want to prove that we can have a new economy and we can do something different and we can kind of fight the odds,” Lanier says. “That might take us a little while longer, but we’re not going to give up.”
West of Yreka, in the tiny former logging town of Seiad Valley, Rick Jones works behind the counter of the general store he owns.
“Siskiyou County will survive on fires, floods and food stamps,” he says. “Fires and floods bring in money, work for folks who want to work. If they don’t want to work, they’re on the food-stamp program.”
This region abounds with forests and rivers, but aside from a burgeoning marijuana industry there’s not as much work on the land as in the past. Most is in the hands of the government and is managed with regulations, which is one of the reasons many people return to the idea of this being a separate state, the State of Jefferson.
“The State of Jefferson is a state of mind now,” Jones laments. “It would be nice but it’ll never happen because they’ll never let California split the state.”
That doesn’t keep people from at least identifying with the notion. Along with dry goods and batteries, Jones stocks his shelves with State of Jefferson gear, like stickers and hats and license plate frames. He wears suspenders and a T-shirt sporting the seal of the State of Jefferson. It’s painted on the outside of his store, too, and on the post office and the cafe. It’s a circle (the shape of a gold mining pan) with two Xs in the middle.
“Double-crossed by the government in the ’30s and ’40s,” explains Jones.
Since the time of California’s statehood in 1850, there’s been interest in making this region separate. By the 1930s and ’40s, many people in the region felt their interests were being neglected by both Sacramento and Salem. In particular, they weren’t getting the infrastructure money needed for building roads to develop timber and mining industries. These parts of Oregon and California share abundant natural resources and isolation from their state capitals.
“They had a motto in the ’40s that the roads here weren’t passable, they weren’t even Jack Ass-able,” says Gail Jenner, a local author and community historian. She says that in late 1941, people began agitating to create a separate state.
“Yreka became the quote/unquote designated capital of the State of Jefferson, and they had a gubernatorial race and a dancing bear in parades and rallies,” she says.
The newspaper held a naming contest, she says, and they settled on Jefferson, after President Thomas Jefferson. At the time “it really didn’t have to do with Jeffersonian policy,” says Jenner, “although the ideals of Jeffersonian policy – supporting the role of agriculture, supporting the role of limited government – tie into our identity now.”
Armed young men blockaded traffic, handing out copies of Jefferson’s Proclamation of Independence. Now, some say this was a sincere attempt at secession. Others call it a publicity stunt. Regardless, the uprising quieted with the attack on Pearl Harbor. But today people from across the political spectrum still see this region as a place apart. Many identify more as residents of the State of Jefferson than of California. That’s actually pretty typical California thinking, says journalist Peter Laufer, who’s publishing a book about the State of Jefferson.
“What we share as Californians is fantasy,” he says. “We are fantasyland and Jefferson is part of the California fantasy. So is turning on the tap in L.A., where there is no reason for there to be water. And so is hanging out in S.D. thinking you’re better than the people in Tijuana when it’s really one big city.”
That fantasy remains powerful in this place where many residents feel they don’t have much political clout. Siskiyou and surrounding counties are physically large, but their populations are tiny. In the last few decades, a Jefferson movement has grown, made up of conservatives focused on decentralized government
Natural resource issues are contentious, and Laufer says, people get polarized around their positions, even though historically State of Jefferson residents considered themselves individualistic.
“In fact, around issues of conflict there’s a lot of group-think,” he says. “So, if there are those who can figure out how to transcend that, perhaps they are the future of the so-called State of Jefferson.”
People like tech entrepreneur Sam Lanier, and the Harris brothers. Rich Harris and his three brothers, all in their 30s, raise cattle and grow alfalfa like most of their neighbors in the stunning Scott Valley, west of Yreka.
They’re also experimenting with raising pigs. Harris walks out to a pasture of piglets and sows that rush at the sound of his feed buckets. A few years ago, they started Four Brothers Heritage Farms, a meat CSA selling directly to consumers in Portland and San Francisco with a slick website and Facebook presence. So far, business is good.
Harris laughs, “Since we started doing this we don’t have pork in our freezer anymore, because it just sells! It’s a good problem to have but sometimes it’s a bummer when you say, ‘I really want a pork chop right now.’ ”
Harris feels good about raising pigs, which he says are more sustainable than cattle and alfalfa: Their diet requires less water, and water’s a big issue here. All four brothers went to college in Oregon, and worked across California and the West before coming home.
“The more people you meet, you see how they live, and you take a little bit of each place with you. It comes back and just helps improve the area that you have,” says Harris.
The brothers try to innovate in order to maintain a ranching heritage, says Rich’s brother, Preston Harris.
“That’s the whole thing about the State of Jefferson: This place won’t get bulldozed. It’s not going to get turned into million-dollar estates with quarter-horse ranches and wine country. That’s not the way people want this to develop.”
Preston Harris straddles multiple worlds. He’s strident about maintaining ranchers’ water rights, but he works as a liaison between ranchers and agencies, develops conservation projects, and runs a program that pays ranchers to divert water back into streams. He believes if his community develops solutions to big problems, they’ll have more freedom to keep doing what they love.
“What happens at the end, it develops almost a pride of, we are the State of Jefferson. We’re not California,” he says. “Even though it’s a mythological pride because it doesn’t exist, but it doesn’t mean that someday it won’t. You never know. I think it would take an act of God, but you know, what the hell?”
Whether that pride comes through statehood or a strong shared identity, Preston Harris hopes he and his neighbors can avoid what he calls the mess that is California.