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‘The Jackson County Rebellion’: Historian Jeffery Max LaLande offers a new view of Southern Oregon

Themes of populist insurgency, ballot theft, and violence in 1930s Oregon carry resonances for modern readers.

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The Jackson County Rebellion: A Populist Uprising in Depression-Era Oregon
Jeffrey Max LaLande
Oregon State University Press, 2023
222 pages, $29.95

Most historians have paid scant attention to Southern Oregon in their writings about the state. Instead, authors have emphasized the northwest corner of Oregon, from Portland down the Willamette Valley to Eugene, over to the coast and up to Astoria. A few nods have been given to Bend, and other scattered, vague references to “far out” Eastern Oregon. Unfortunately, not much on Southern Oregon.


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In his superb book, The Jackson County Rebellion: A Populist Uprising in Depression-Era Oregon, historian Jeff LaLande helps correct these previous oversights, providing a provocative story about Southern Oregon.  The book overflows with new information and will add notably to readers’ knowledge of Oregon history.

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LaLande, a historian and archaeologist with a doctorate in history from the University of Oregon, follows a chronological approach.  He traces what he calls rebellions or insurrections in Southern Oregon history from the early 1890s to the 1930s.  The book’s first chapters furnish illuminating discussions of the People’s or Populist Party in the 1890s, the Ku Klux Klan in the 1920s, and rise of the Good Government Congress in the early 1930s.  These chapters discuss the reasons these movements erupted, what they had in common, and how and why they invaded Southern Oregon.

LaLande’s significant volume emphasizes the Good Government Congress (GGC) movement, its leaders and opponents, and what happened so quickly in the uprising.  The GGC came into existence in January 1933, with Llewellyn Banks (editor and orchardist) and Earl Fehl (journalist and later a judge) as its leaders.  This booming movement, the leaders asserted, was an effort to keep the Medford “gang” (urban businessmen, professionals, and large agriculturists) from overruling and destroying the efforts of “plain Americans.”  Less well-to-do residents, smaller orchardists, and especially residents of the Jackson County “hinterlands” were drawn to the GGC.

Outspoken opponents, of course, popped up against the new populist movement.  Chief among them was Robert Rohl, the owner and editor of the Medford Mail Tribune newspaper. Rohl roundly criticized Banks and Fehl for what he considered their dictatorial and destructive actions. Once the GGC was organized and energetically pushing its ideas and actions, the Jackson County Rebellion exploded on scene.  Fiery words flew among the leaders and critics, especially in the newspapers of Banks, Fehl, and Rohl.  LaLande is particularly helpful in explaining these ideas through quotes from original sources.

Historian and author Jeffrey Max LaLande
Historian and author Jeffrey Max LaLande

Overnight, the Rebellion reached a violent apex. In late February 1933, Fehl and others organized a ballot theft to keep an election from going against them and undermining their efforts. Less than a month later, Banks shot and killed a police officer sent to arrest him. Incriminating evidence was gathered, and Banks was sentenced to life in the state prison; Fehl was likewise imprisoned for his actions.  With the leaders in jail, the New Deal making its way into Southern Oregon, and the economy in the Medford and surrounding areas beginning to recover from the depth of the Depression, the Rebellion was quickly over.

The final pages of LaLande’s informative volume sum up the importance of these events in Jackson County.  The author’s discussion sparkles in his comparisons of the Southern Oregon events with what happened nationally — for example, Huey Long in Louisiana, Father Coughlin countrywide, and the Townsend Plan in California.  Plus, LaLande discusses the end of Banks and Fehl’s lives and Rohl’s winning a coveted Pulitzer Prize for his newspaper coverage.

The theft of ballots in Jackson County was the lead story on the Feb. 22, 1933, Medford Mail Tribune — topping an assassination attempt on President Franklin D. Roosevelt. Photo courtesy: The Oregon Encyclopedia

LaLande’s contextual discussions and his research are particularly impressive.  Not only does he show how the Jackson County events are relevant to Oregon state and Southern Oregon history, but also, in the closing pages, he explains how the Rebellion does and does not fit with accusations of fascism and other forms of dictatorial actions. In addition, the author asks readers to look for possible parallels between these events and the political controversies roiling the U.S. in the past decade. Invaluable suggestion.  LaLande’s extensive research will also catch the attention of readers. Of his 180 pages of text, 40 are devoted to his exhaustive footnotes and thorough bibliography.  The author has mined the necessary manuscript and printed primary sources, read widely in numerous secondary sources, and incorporated the important insights of those secondary sources into his story.

In short, here is an illuminating example of high-caliber regional history, showing the importance of understanding the national and regional competitions and complexities as they play out in a local setting. Overall, an extraordinarily valuable account that will help readers better understand Southern Oregon history. It will also provide historians and other writers with a first-rate example of how to combine local, regional, and national history.  A notable read in all ways.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

Richard W. Etulain, a specialist in the history and literature of the American West, is the author or editor of 60 books. He is professor emeritus of history and former director of the Center for the American West at the University of New Mexico.  He also served as editor of the New Mexico Historical Review. Among his best-known books are Stegner: Conversations on History and Literature (1983, 1996) and Re-imagining the Modern American West: A Century of Literature, History, and Art (1996). Etulain holds a PhD from the University of Oregon (1966) and taught at Idaho State University (1970-79) and the University of New Mexico (1979-2001).  He served as president of both the Western Literature and Western History associations.  He now lives in the Portland area with his wife, Joyce, a retired children's librarian.

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