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Oregon Trails: The Tale of Two Councils

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GOLD HILL, Ore. – The 2012 election season has focused mainly on the presidential race and its impacts on the nation, but a hundred years ago, one of Jackson County’s biggest towns was in the middle of a political storm that threatened to tear the community apart.

Main Street in Gold Hill is quiet and peaceful, with fall colors on the trees and signs of a quiet November election here and there. That wasn’t the case a hundred years ago when disputes over spending for streets, lights and a new water system, and a contested city charter revision, had city hall tied in knots.

“In November of 1911 there was as special election held for funding a water bond. They adopted a city council, or a city charter, but it was not approved, according to the laws of Oregon,” explained Gold Hill Historian, Linda Genaw. “So, therefore it was, declared invalid, so the city council that was elected in 1912 was also considered invalid.”

So, the previous city council, led by Mayor J.C. Beeman attempted to resume control of city hall. But the new council, elected under terms of a newly adopted city charter refused to step down. Adding to the confusion, newly elected Mayor L.C. Applegate didn’t like the job and stepped down, leading to the appointment of doctor R.C. Kelsey as mayor. That stirred up opposition to Kelsey and the town quickly divided into two camps. A lawsuit challenging the new charter was filed, at the same time challenging the Dr. Kelsey-led council’s authority to run city hall.

“It all wrapped around finances and committees, school committees and the water committee, the city council. So a lot of money, I think, was involved and questioning of how the money was spent,” Genaw said.

The Medford Sun, in its July 13, 1912 issue, reported that, “following the action the political boss of both cliques held a miniature indignation meeting on the street corners in groups of three and four”, and the talk of the town was the dueling councils.

“The charter, for one thing, when they voted on it, it wasn’t published right. They were supposed to, you know, publish it in 10 different places. Advertise it so many times,” said Genaw, “And they found out they only published it in 9 places instead of 10! And so then it just kept snowballing into going to court.”

It ended up going before a Jackson County Judge who sustained the legality of the old council led by Beeman and the illegality of the new charter. But it didn’t end there. The Kelsey group appealed to the Oregon Supreme Court, which made it’s decision in the summer of 1913.

“The Oregon Supreme Court upheld the charter and said it was valid. And so the council that was elected in ’12 was legally the council and then it was time for the 1913 election and they happened to be elected that year,” said Genaw.

New ground was also broken in the April, 1913 election when Cora Truax, shown here at her family’s restaurant, was elected to the council quite possibly the first woman elected to any office in Southern Oregon!

“I don’t think they got anything done, during that time,” said Genaw. “I don’t know how they could, get anything done with two groups of people with two different ideas trying to come together.”

Gold Hill went through a lot of political turmoil in the ’80′s. things have been a lot calmer since then, for the most part and certainly nothing like that, that happened in the teens. In fact, an Associated Press writer once called Gold Hill, “The Crankiest Town In Oregon.”