You don’t need to fly to Estonia to witness secessionist fever--just take I-5 about 600 miles north to Yreka, Calif. In that small city, hundreds of people want to shake off the political shackles of Los Angeles via Sacramento and combine seven counties in Northern California and southern Oregon to create the state of Jefferson.
“We’re outnumbered by Southern Californians,” says Tom Higgs, a 40-year-old logger. “Those people down there don’t have an understanding of our way of life. They’re legislating us out of existence.”
For example, “Jeffersonians” are deeply opposed to gun-control legislation thatpassed last year. And Southern Californians, Higgs complains, care more about the spotted owl than the ailing timber industry--in Yreka and neighboring cities, unemployment hovers around 25%.
It’s not a new fight. This month marks the 50th anniversary of the Jefferson rebellion, which began as a protest over a lack of roads in the area. The people organized, made Yreka the capital of Jefferson--named after Thomas Jefferson--and “elected” a governor. The media took the rebellion seriously, and the state Legislature came through with money for a network of new roads. The victory catalyzed the building of California’s freeway system and inter-state freeways across the country.
Since then, the issues may have changed, but the discontent has not.
“More and more people feel Jefferson might not be a bad idea,” says Johnie Wineland, co-owner of Yreka’s Minor Street Deli. But secession is never easy. The 350,000 voters in the counties that would form Jefferson would have to approve the secession, it would go on the California and Oregon ballots and, if approved, it would move to Congress--all of which is highly unlikely. For now, rebels can buy bumper stickers that say, “I live in the State of Jefferson,” or T-shirts that proclaim, “Native Jeffersonian,” listen to “Jefferson Public Radio” and attend the annual Jefferson Days fair on July 4th. Says George Wacker, 79, mayor of Yreka and one of the original secessionists: “It’s more advertising gimmicks than anything now.”