Who was Fern Hobbs?
As we found out last week, she was Governor Oswald Hobbs’ personal secretary. Her position was unusual enough that an article appeared in The Indianapolis News when she was promoted from chief clerk to private secretary in March 1913. The brief article mentions she was the “first woman to occupy such a position in Oregon,” and her salary would be $3,000 a year.
She was born Data Fern Hobbs on 8 May 1883 in Bloomington, Nebraska, the daughter of John Alden and Cora Bush Hobbs, the second of seven children. He was a “wool grower” according to the Nebraska state census in 1885, and a dairyman by 1900, when the family lived in Salt Lake City, Utah.
In about 1903, Fern moved to Portland, Oregon, with her two younger brothers Earl and Theodate. She helped her two sisters receive an education, while studying stenography and shorthand. Fern continued her studies while working with an attorney, and an article in The Daily Free Press mentions she “finally took up law” and was “admitted to the bar.” A 1914 article in the Lincoln Evening Journal said she had a diploma from the law department of Williamette university.
After her promotion in March, she was sent on an important mission to Washington, D.C. on Governor West’s behalf in connection with some state lands matters. Once again, news of her trip appeared in The Washington Post, where she was called the “first woman to represent a state in the Capital”; The Commoner (Lincoln, Nebraska), where it was remarked that “usually a high-priced attorney receives such an assignment, and it is considered altogether unusual for a woman to be trusted with work of this nature”; and The Atlanta Constitution. Fern visited Atlanta on her way back from the Capitol, and the newspaper commented that “besides possessing a charming personality, Miss Hobbs is really good looking—much to the su[r]prise of several reporters who interview her, who had expected to greet some austere looking person—one of those women with a ‘purpose.’” The writer of the article mentioned that Fern “seemed to enjoy the heckling and innumerable questions,” adding that she said “they were not half so bad as posing for the ‘movies’ last week in Washington.”
Fern’s notoriety in shutting down the saloons of the town of Copperfield, Oregon, continued throughout 1914, with many voices calling for her election as governor of the state at the retirement of Oswald West in 1915. She declined these offers, and was appointed in January 1915 by Governor West to the state industrial accident commission, a post with a salary of $3,600 per year, considered “one of the best appointive offices in the state.” She was the only woman member of the commission.
That position was in jeopardy almost immediately, when, in February 1915, the Oregon senate passed a bill amending the law creating the state industrial accident commission, reducing the number of commissioners from three to one. That the bill was a dig at former Governor West was denied by the senator who proposed the measure. At a late hour, the house refused to approve the senate’s amendments, and her job was saved. In May of 1915, the wrangling continued. Fern Hobbs offered to resign if the workmen’s compensation bill was not amended. True to her word, when it failed, she resigned.
Her days of service were not over. In 1918, she applied for a passport, headed for France with the administrative force of the American Red Cross. Her occupation was listed as “office manager of war savings campaign.” Fern returned to the U.S. in 1919, where a mention in The Evening Herald of Klamath Falls, Oregon, says she was “head of the casualty section of the hospital home service in Paris,” and that she would be taking a position in Portland.
The remaining mentions of Miss Fern Hobbs are few. In 1920, she lived in a boarding house with her younger sister Priscilla on Salmon Street in Portland. Her profession is listed as secretary in an office; her sister is a stenographer. She traveled to Europe once more, returning in 1922. By 1930, she was living in Cornelius, Oregon, in the home of her 78-year-old father. Her occupation was listed as secretary in a newspaper office. The city directory of Portland for 1931 gives her title as secretary to the business manager of the Journal.
Fern Hobbs died on 10 April 1964 in Oregon, and is buried in Hillsboro Pioneer Cemetery. Her modest, unassuming headstone belies the amazing career of a woman who did what needed to be done.
NOTES: “Woman is Governor’s Secretary,” The Indianapolis News, 20 March 1913, p.14; Ancestry.com. 1900 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2004.; Ancestry.com. Nebraska, State Census Collection, 1860-1885 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2009.; Ancestry.com. Nebraska, State Census, 1885 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2002 [She is listed in Ancestry family tree as born in 1885, but as age 2 in 1885 Nebraska census. An affidavit in her passport application from her mother specifies her birth as 8 May 1883.].; Ancestry.com. 1910 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2006.; “Women Can Help in Politics,” The Daily Free Press (Carbondale, Illinois), 14 May 1917, p.3; “Who’s Who Among Women: Miss Fern Hobbs: A Governor’s Private Secretary,” Lincoln Evening Journal (Lincoln, Nebraska), 10 March 1914, p.4; “Woman Brought Gamblers and Saloon Men to Their Knees,” The Farmer and Mechanic (Raleigh, North Carolina), 27 January 1914, p.1; “West’s Secretary on Trip to Washington on Important Mission,” Daily Capital Journal (Salem, Oregon), 13 October 193, p.1.; “She’s Here for Oregon,” The Washington Post (Washington, District of Columbia), 23 October 1913, p.14; [untitled], The Commoner (Lincoln, Nebraska), 1 November 1913, p.22; “Woman Secretary of Governor Here,” The Atlanta Constitution, 13 November 1913, p.15; “Fern Hobbs Begins Her New Job Friday,” The Huntington Herald (Huntington, Indiana), 1 January 1915, p.8.; Ancestry.com. U.S. Passport Applications, 1795-1925 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2007.; “Miss Fern Hobbs Visits in Salem,” The Evening Herald (Klamath Falls, Oregon), 27 September 1919, p.5.; Ancestry.com. 1920 United States Federal Census [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations Inc, 2010. Images reproduced by FamilySearch.; Ancestry.com. New York, Passenger Lists, 1820-1957[database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2010.; Ancestry.com. U.S. City Directories, 1821-1989 [database on-line]. Provo, UT, USA: Ancestry.com Operations, Inc., 2011.