State of Jefferson: A place apart

  • Brian Petersen silk-screens T-shirts with the double-x State of Jefferson logo at his Yreka, California, shop

    Scott Harding
  • State of Jefferson

 

Name  Brian Petersen

Age  40

Vocation  Entrepreneur: Runs a local car wash, fabricates signs, grinds stumps, manufactures plastic trays for bed-bound laptop users, and silk-screens T-shirts for local soccer teams. He recently bought a $30,000 laser-engraver whose commercial potential, he says, is untapped; he’s still dreaming up ways to use it.

Known for  Promoting the State of Jefferson

He says  "California is too big to govern, and I’m not the first to say that."

 

Brian Petersen hates to wear a suit. He last sported one in 1998, when he tried his hand at selling real estate along the Klamath River in California. He lasted six months before ditching both the job and the outfit.

"It just wasn’t me," he says. "This is me." He’s wearing a baseball cap, worn jeans, wet boots and a deep tan. On a crisp day in October, he’s driving a decommissioned Forest Service rig, still painted a telltale shade of green but bearing, in its second life, an advertisement for his stump-grinding and tractor service. We have just fetched his tractor from a work site, and as darkness falls we return it to a warehouse at the edge of town.

Yreka is an old gold-mining settlement that sits in a wide valley west of Mount Shasta. It is also the Interim Capital of the State of Jefferson. The warehouse we’re headed for is Petersen’s office and his shop; it is also what he jokingly calls the World Headquarters of the State of Jefferson. Petersen is the interim governor.

The State of Jefferson is a dream that’s been around since 1941, when the mayor of Port Orford, Ore., proposed that the counties of Northern California and southern Oregon secede from their respective states and form a 49th state. Gilbert Gable’s intent was to draw attention to the region’s roads, whose poor condition discouraged development of timber and minerals. The plan struck a chord among rural residents who felt ignored by politicians in faraway Salem, Ore., and Sacramento, Calif.

On Nov. 27, 1941, the 20/30 Club — which Petersen describes fondly as "a group of guys in their 20s and 30s with a sense of humor and nothing to do" — took up arms and blockaded traffic near Yreka on Highway 99. Tongues at least partly in cheek, they passed out copies of Jefferson’s Proclamation of Independence, announcing that "Patriotic Jeffersonians intend to secede each Thursday until further notice."

Alas, that was the height of Jefferson fever. Gable died suddenly on Dec. 2. Five days later, Pearl Harbor was attacked, and any thoughts of secession were lost in the subsequent swirl of nationalism.

Decades later, however, in the late 1990s, the Klamath water war galvanized local property-rights proponents. The now-legendary conflict fueled residents’ feeling that the region was a place apart, misrepresented by urban lawmakers who threatened a way of life with their environmental regulations and bureaucratic ineptitude.

Around the same time, Petersen, then in the midst of his short-lived real estate career, stumbled across the State of Jefferson. He saw it as a great marketing tool — and a way to reach people sympathetic to the limited-government, property-rights cause he espouses. He teamed up with another modern-day Jefferson booster to half-seriously revive Gilbert Gable’s half-serious proposal. He co-authored a book on Jefferson’s history; organized a Jefferson State Fair that featured property-rights guru Wayne Hage; and launched jeffersonstate.com, the 51st state’s official Web presence.

Petersen’s zeal for property-rights reform has since taken a backseat to his 6-year-old daughter, Molly. "My free time is saved for her," he says. But he has no plans to abdicate the governorship, a position that entails maintaining the Web site, writing a monthly blog, selling Jefferson hats, T-shirts, and license-plate wraps, and keeping the official archives — two cardboard boxes full of newspaper clippings, correspondence, photographs and Jefferson paraphernalia ranging from keychain prototypes to bumper stickers.

Although Petersen is realistic about Jefferson’s future — secession, which requires the approval of both states’ legislatures and the United States Congress, is "a losing battle" whose likelihood is "close to nil"— he remains hooked on the undying spirit of the would-be state. He treats questions about his vision for an acceptable government with a little impatience, as if they miss the point entirely: "See, that’s the State of Jefferson, right there!" he exclaims when a driver in a green truck waves at us on our way through downtown Yreka. "Friendly people, small-town living."


The author writes from a cabin on the Rogue River, in the heart of Jefferson State.

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