For 60 years after its incorporation in 1865, Umatilla city government ran under the radar with typical small-town operations.
That all changed in 1916, when a group of women, fed up with unaddressed concerns, decided to make a point, take a stand and gain control of the town.
In 1912, Oregon became the seventh state to give women the right to vote.
According to local legend, four years after gaining the right to vote, the women of Umatilla, gathering for a game of cards, organized a secret election campaign. At the time, all Umatilla candidates were elected as write-in ballots, and candidates did not have to announce their intention to run for office. The women used that system, and the low voter turnout, in their favor to dominate the election.
On Dec. 5, 1916, Laura J. Stockton Starcher was elected mayor. Two other women, Bertha Cherry and Lola Merrick, were elected recorder and town treasurer. Four women Gladys Spinning, Anna Means, Florence Brownell and Stella Paulu were elected to the town council, filling each seat up for election.
Two men, whose terms did not expire in 1916, remained on the council.
Starcher easily beet out the incumbent mayor her husband, E.E. Starcher by a vote of 26-8.
After the election, both E.E. Starcher and C.G. Brownell denied any prior knowledge of their wives' political ambitions, according to the Oregon Historical Society.
The front page of the Jan. 13, 1917, edition of the Hermiston Herald ran the headline: Umatilla women now in complete control," after the women assumed office that Tuesday evening. The election gained national attention, and many considered it a joke.
Starcher, however, did not.
"There has been a great deal said about the so-called petticoat government and many wild speculations made as to how we would manage the city affairs, being mere women," she said in her inaugural address. "However, we will manage the affairs of this municipality and do it in a creditable manner without a shadow of a doubt. And if I did not believe that any woman on this council was not as competent and capable as any man who ever occupied a chair in this council, I would resign right now."
During the same meeting that she gave her acceptance speech, Starcher appointed her committees "leaving the men out," according to a 1917 Hermiston Herald article and declined to appoint a marshal "on the ground that it was an unnecessary expense as long as there is a deputy sheriff on the streets."
Starcher also promised to "take up at once" the lighting of the streets streetlights had been turned off after the city did not pay the bill and "other needed improvements."
Over the next four years, the women of the "Petticoat Rebellion" would establish a sewer system, new electrical services, install railroad crossing signs, open the first public library, implement monthly garbage collection and organize "cleanup weeks" to keep streets and sidewalks clear.
Citing health reasons, Starcher would only serve eight months of her two-year term. Unofficial accounts suggest Starcher moved to Parma, Idaho, where she became that city's first female postmaster. In 1918, Paulu, one of the women elected to the town council in 1916, was elected mayor.
Women would dominate the city government until 1920, when that year's election returned to an all-male city government.
A children's novel, "Operation Clean Sweep" was published about the saga in 2004. Darleen Bailey Beard wrote the novel, and Canda Rattray researched the rebellion and created a "reader's theater" play based on the novel and that information.
A performance of the play will take place at 7 p.m. June 22 at Umatilla High School as part of Umatilla's 150th Birthday Celebration and Umatilla Landing Days. Admission to the play is $2, but children 6 and under are free.