1 Collision Course
Corvallis' best days are yet to come, and the summit of her prosperity has been far from reached. Naught but words of confidence and enthusiasm are heard on every hand.
—CORVALLIS TIMES, JUNE 27, 1903
IN THE SUMMER OF 1903, Corvallis, Oregon, was a small and growing town of about 1,800, best known for its agricultural college and as the commercial center of a thriving agricultural area. Civic leaders were proud of their town's traditional values of hard work, family, and church. But they wanted much more. Eager for population growth and economic development, they were doing all they could in the early 1900s to lure new settlers and businesses to town. The Corvallis Citizens' League, made up of local businessmen, promoted immigration to the town by circulating pamphlets throughout the East and Midwest extolling the town's virtues. The Corvallis Improvement Society organized city beautification projects, such as the planting of trees and flowers, to impress potential settlers. One of the town's two newspapers, the Times, advocated starting an exhibit of local agricultural products at Portland's main train station, contending that “the sight of an unusually fine sheaf of wheat, a bunch of grass of exceptional length, or any other product of unusual merit appeals to a homeseeker with far greater directness and power than do pages and pages of literature.” When the Times, early that summer, proclaimed that “Corvallis' best days are yet to come,” it was invoking the optimism and ambition that drove much of the town's activity.
During that same summer, a relative newcomer in the community,
Edmund Creffield, was demonstrating another kind of ambition as he sought to save souls through a new religious practice. Creffield's goals were very different from those of Corvallis's civic leaders; indeed, if one thing was true, it was that Creffield held in contempt those who sought material gain. He urged his followers to renounce worldly goods and comforts, instructing them to dress plainly, eat sparingly, and live as simply as was humanly possible. Creffield's great vision was the re-creation of the Garden of Eden, where men and women could praise God all day without worry of food or shelter.
In the normal course of events, one would have expected Creffield to create little stir in Corvallis. He had only a small handful of followers, about twenty-five at most, and they didn't want to have any contact at all with the vast majority of Corvallisites, whom they called nonbelievers. So it is unlikely that anyone, in that summer of 1903, could have envisioned that Creffield and the ambitious little town were heading for a collision. But they were, as Creffield persisted in his efforts to re-create Eden on the banks of the Willamette River, and as Corvallisites became convinced that this self-styled religious leader was a danger to traditional values and threatened to derail the town's ambitious plans for growth and prosperity.
The Rise of Corvallis
Established in the mid-1840s at the junction of the Mary and Willamette rivers, Corvallis enjoyed the varied fortunes so common to many Western frontier towns.1
Trade grew fitfully and fires regularly leveled wood-frame buildings. The town briefly served as territorial capital in the 1850s, but it quickly lost that prize to Salem. Early settlers from the Midwest and East supported themselves primarily through farming. They brought with them many of the traditional organizations of the society they had left behind, building churches and establishing social clubs and lodges, such as the Oddfellows and Masons, as well as two temperance organizations. Oregon Agricultural College, established in 1868, contributed greatly to the town's local importance. Corvallis residents recognized the college's economic potential and supported it through the donation of land and the construction of an administration building.
The first sustained commercial expansion came only after the arrival of the railroad in 1880. The town witnessed a small but relatively important building boom in the 1880s, with an increase in businesses, homes, and public buildings such as the courthouse, the city hall, and a new public school. The Benton County Board of Immigration, established in 1885, publicized the county to attract settlers from the Midwest, and this spurred population growth until the financial crisis of the Panic of 1893. The Panic slowed trade, bankrupted railroads, and temporarily halted Corvallis's expansion.
By the early 1900s, however, the economy had recovered. Although the town had grown by only 19 percent in the 1890s, its growth rate reached 150 percent in the first decade of the new century. On June 27, 1903, the Corvallis Times accurately proclaimed that the town had rebounded:
A MOST CHARMINGLY LOCATED PROSPEROUS CITY
Keeping Step to the Music of Progress—Sketches of her Leading Industries and Mercantile Establishments
article first described the town's many advantages, noting its excellent railroad service, which allowed it to serve as “the distributing point for a rich agricultural district.” The paper noted the presence of Oregon Agricultural College and numerous businesses, all of which contributed to town's “steady growth and solid development.” Then the paper provided short sketches of some two dozen local businesses, detailing the commercial success of local banks and of a wide variety of stores (furniture, bicycles, dry goods, confectioners, druggists, books) and services (hotels, laundries, foundries), while predicting even greater commercial expansion in the years ahead.2
With the economy improving in the early years of the new century, Corvallis's leaders vigorously redoubled their efforts to attract newcomers to the town. The belief was widespread that newcomers would work an economic miracle for Corvallis, increasing capital, benefiting current businesses, generating new businesses, and reducing
taxes. There were challenges, of course: higher taxes were needed at first to pay for the schools, paved roads, and city water system that would attract newcomers, and nearby local towns were just as eager for growth. But all of that seemed manageable, and civic leaders were optimistic.3
Corvallis's civic leaders believed that their town would be particularly appealing to new settlers because of its traditional values of family, work, and religion. This was a town of farmers and small businesspeople, most living in simple but well-cared-for homes. Their lives were filled with the everyday events common to small towns across the country: church suppers, births, deaths, marriages, family visits, meetings of fraternal organizations, “at home” parties, recitals, and a wide variety of other activities. The typical local resident was a churchgoer who valued God, home, and family. These were hardworking, law-abiding, moral people, conscious of their responsibilities to family and community. As one Corvallis resident from that period, Minerva Kiger Reynolds, later recalled in her memoirs, “They also liked their neighbors. They visited back and forth and were always anxious to lend a helping hand to each other.”4
Among those traditional values was a belief that a woman's proper role was as a homemaker who cooked and cleaned for husband and children. Minerva Reynolds later recalled that a woman's week was organized primarily by house-related work: Monday for washing, Tuesday for ironing, Wednesday for mending and darning, Friday for housecleaning, and Saturday for baking. Thursday was set aside for visits with friends and family, and Sunday was, of course, a day of worship and prayer.5
Corvallis's two newspapers recounted stories of local women who had a strong sense of family duty. They selflessly cared for ill children and aged parents, and one young woman even moved to another town to care for her ailing father. A few women worked outside the home, but those jobs usually were short-term endeavors that soon gave way to family obligations. The Times
told of one local teacher who resigned her job to move to California to care for her brother's family because her sister-in-law was too ill to do the work herself. Family concerns belonged to men, too, who worked foremost as providers and, when needed, cared for sick wives or mothers. Family ties defined lives,
chores, responsibilities, and even socializing, as dinners, trips, and vacations all served to unite family members who lived apart.6
Outside the home and family circle, most women in Corvallis busied themselves in traditional women's roles centering on church and women's groups such as the Methodist Women's Home Missionary Society, the Presbyterian Missionary Society, the Coffee Club, the Young Women's Christian Association, the Rebekah Lodge, and the Order of Eastern Star. Religious affiliation even helped to structure some of women's socializing, as various church groups combined religious work with entertainment. The Times reported on one such event on February 4, 1903:
An afternoon tea was given Friday at the house of Mrs. Hays. . . . The affair was given by the ladies of the Christian church, and a feature was the presentation of a Bible to the guest of honor. The occasion was very pleasant. About twenty persons were present.
And, on June 7, 1903, on another:
Wednesday afternoon was made very interesting for Congregationalists and their friends at the home of Mrs. E.B.Taylor. The guests numbered 65 and after a literary and musical programme, were daintily served with ices and punch.
On February 26, 1904, the Gazette reported on a tea held by the Presbyterian Women's Missionary Society: “a pleasant program of music, readings, etc., was followed by the usual lunch. About 40 of the good sisters testified to have a very enjoyable afternoon.”
All of these activities created what the Corvallis Times
in early summer 1903 called “one of the neatest, healthiest and most progressive little cities in the state of Oregon.” The paper revealed the town's ambitions when it stated that commercial and industrial expansion were “limited only by the energy of our people in taking advantage of the opportunities that lie at our door.” And it echoed the town's pride in traditional values when it praised the many “cozy cottages and handsome homes” and noted that “civic and fraternal organizations are well represented while many church organizations are in a
This self-congratulatory air would soon vanish, however, as the town and its people faced the troubling rise of Edmund Creffield and his small band of followers.
The Rise of Edmund Creffield and “God's Anointed”
A rather short and slight man—standing about 5 feet, 6 inches, and weighing about 135 pounds—with a shock of washed-out blond hair, light blue eyes, a pale complexion, and a prominent forehead, Creffield was not a very imposing person physically.8
Yet he possessed something far more compelling—an almost magnetic personality, what would later be described as a “hypnotic” power to draw people to him and his beliefs. Although he never attracted a very large following in town—his flock would number between twenty and twenty-five followers—his impact on the town was more dramatic and controversial than that of any other religious leader in its history. The notoriety that the town received because of Creffield was not what civic boosters had wanted.
The chief mystery of the Creffield case is Creffield himself. Who he was, where he came from, what he believed and taught, how he so mesmerized some of his followers—all of these remain somewhat vague. He himself did not grant interviews to reporters, and he taught his followers to shun not only the press but the world at large. To a great degree, he has been defined for history by those who opposed him.
Little is known about Creffield's life before he became such a divisive figure in Corvallis. Most likely, he was born in Germany, studied briefly for the priesthood, and then emigrated to the United States in the 1890s. His full name was Franz Edmund Creffield, although most newspaper articles at the height of his notoriety dropped the first name. How he got to Oregon is unclear; what is clear, however, is that he heard the Salvation Army's call to arms on the streets of Portland and enlisted in the Army's battle for souls. Always short of recruits and often dependent on drifters and poorly educated men to fill its ranks, the Salvation Army was greatly impressed with Creffield's intelligence and abilities, and probably asked few questions about his past or religious beliefs. His training was most likely limited, given the Army's shortage of personnel, but he advanced rapidly
from private to captain. While in Portland, he taught classes and was a highly effective preacher at Army meetings and on the city's streets. Before long, he was sent to McMinnville, Grants Pass, and Corvallis.
Although Creffield did not stay in the Salvation Army for very long, he found there many of the beliefs and practices that would shape his own religious sect. In sharp contrast with most established religions of that era in the U.S., the Salvationists embraced a highly emotional practice characterized by sensational preaching and intense and often loud participation by the faithful. Army meetings could stretch on for hours, during which congregants would give testimony of their faith and sometimes shout, scream, or writhe on the floor. Salvationists sought to give members a distinct Army-based identity; they renounced worldly vanities such as fancy clothes, tobacco, alcohol, and other luxuries, and opted for a plain uniform and a life of self-denial. Marriage outside the Army was forbidden, and connections to non-Salvationist friends and family discouraged. As the historian Lillian Taiz writes, becoming a Salvation Army officer meant severing oneself from friends and family and adhering to a new community—the Army. Set apart from others by their distinctive uniform, reliance on military-style rank and command structure, fervent religiosity, and frequent rotation in field assignments, Salvationists turned to one another for spiritual and emotional strength as well as for company.9
The Salvationists took pride in the condemnation of others; indeed, Army founders William and Catherine Booth told their followers that opposition and persecution were proof that they were doing God's work. Established churches disliked the Army's sensational preaching, emotionalism, and opposition to the conventional methods of traditional religion. Liberal Protestant churches, particularly those accommodating modernist thinking on evolution or scriptural criticism, found little to like in the Army's literal interpretation of the Bible or in its millennialism, while more conservative clergymen warned that the Army's highly enthusiastic rituals endangered women's virtue. Some brewery owners hoped to derail the Army because of its virulent denunciation of alcohol, going so far as to hire mobs to attack Salvationists. Injuries were not uncommon; in the United States in the 1880s and 1890s, at least five Salvationists were killed in such attacks, and others suffered attempted lynchings and broken bones.
In Portland, a saloon owner turned a fire hose on Army members in 1886 when they took their brass band to his neighborhood. Such attacks only invigorated the Salvationists. As historian Roy Hatters-ley writes, “William Booth's special brand of hubris made him relish the bottles and the half-bricks which rained down on every open-air meeting. The devil only struck back when the devil took notice.”10
Although Creffield's later teachings would incorporate the Army's amalgam of high emotionalism, social separatism, asceticism, and semi-masochism, he left the Army after just two years. The hierarchical nature of the Army was not to Creffield's liking, and as some of his colleagues from the Portland Salvation Army corps later recalled, he bridled at taking orders. His undisciplined theology also clashed with Army beliefs; although the Salvationists cultivated highly ecstatic religious meetings, they were quite conservative in their doctrine.11
Returning to Corvallis in late 1902, Creffield soon lured the core of local Salvationists to his own teaching—ultimately, even the local Salvation Army leader, Major Brooks, joined the Creffieldites. In Corvallis, about two dozen people had been affiliated with the Salvation Army. Among them was the family of Orlando V. (O. V.) Hurt, a respected Corvallis merchant and member of the Republican state central committee. Hurt's family—his wife, Sarah, daughters Maud and Mae, and son Frank—took quickly to the charismatic Creffield, as did many of the other Corvallis Salvationists, including members of the Starr, Hartley, and Mitchell families.
Young Esther Mitchell, just fifteen years old, became one of Creffield's most ardent disciples. Creffield's charisma and self-assurance were particularly appealing to this lonely and shy girl for whom life seemed to hold little. Born the youngest of seven children to a poor family in Newberg, Oregon, Esther was, for all practical purposes, orphaned at the age of six when her mother died and her father, Charles Mitchell, sent her to live with another local family. Esther's older siblings went to work, supporting themselves, while the two youngest brothers—George and Perry—remained at home with their father. Esther saw few of them regularly, although George felt a particular responsibility for her, and she retained close ties to just one sister, Donna (also known as Belle). Except for George and Perry, none of the family saw much of their father, who had always been overly
strict and e...