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Gainford Mix
A true agricultural pioneer
by Mel Coulter

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Gainford Mix, baseballStatesman, entrepreneur, athlete, farmer…the University of Idaho College of Agriculture could have picked no better ambassador during its infancy than Gainford P. “Gub” Mix. The college’s first graduate—its only graduate of 1901—came by his multi-dimensional personality quite naturally. He was the fourth son and seventh child of Franklin E. Mix, a Moscow-area homesteader, nurseryman, and cabinetmaker.

For his part, Gainford cut a wide swath, literally and figuratively, through Idaho’s early history. His first visibility came as a pitcher on Moscow’s community baseball team, and later as a skilled quarterback on his school’s football team that defeated Washington, Lewiston State Normal (Lewiston) and Washington Agricultural College (now WSU).

Swift of mind as well as feet, he once dashed 500 yards to deposit game receipts at a local bank before controversy erupted on the field over eligibility of one of Idaho’s players. The Washington ag school refused to play and forfeited the game. Angry fans also forfeited their admission costs because Gainford reasoned it would take more signatures than he could muster to reclaim money from the bank.

Above: Gainford P. “Gub” Mix, left in photo, as a young baseball player for Moscow’s community team. Photo: Mix Family Collection.

The incident demonstrated, at an early age, a business sense that would carry Gainford to the statehouse and to appearances before Congress.

“As a young farm boy,” according to his obituary on June 29, 1944, “he claimed to have the distinction to be the first student to walk through the doors of the unfinished first Administration Building when the university started its initial term in 1892. He entered as a preparatory student and nine years later became the first graduate from the new College of Agriculture.”

Classmates assembling for a reunion in the 1940s recalled, “The first, and in our time, the only graduate of the agricultural course, it was a standing joke that Gub’s education cost the state and U.S. government(s) a sum between $50,000 and $75,000.”

Gainford was among a long line of Mixes to pass through the University of Idaho’s doors. Sister Emma Maud Noftsger joined him when the university opened its doors in 1892. She was among its first six students enrolled and graduated in 1899. Family records indicate that an estimated 24 descendants of Franklin Mix attended the University of Idaho, spanning four generations. The historic record, “A Palouse Centennial,” was published in the mid-1980s, primarily the work of John Mix, a grandson of Gainford.

Franklin, who moved to Idaho from Nebraska in 1872, planted and nurtured fruit trees and hardwoods, many of which are alive and productive today. Trees that shade Moscow’s East City Park at Third and Hayes streets and those that surround radio station KRPL-KZFN on Moscow’s northern edge are the products of his labor.

Below: The “Little Idaho” revolutionized harvests on the Palouse until World War I brought gasoline engines to farms.14-148, Historical Photograph Collection, University of Idaho Library.

"little Idaho"Many of the orchards he planted on the homestead north of Moscow—even a highly profitable and productive peach orchard—were “grubbed” under and turned into wheat fields early last century in a move that was criticized at the time but later proved fortuitous.

Never one to stray far from the family farm, Gainford joined older brother Ulysses in operating a farm implement/machinery business and quickly established a strong reputation. “[They have] proven themselves to be indispensable co-adjutators [sic] of the farms and agricultural interests and built for themselves a name and reputation that is co-extensive with the city of Moscow,” according to a newspaper account from around 1904.

They also founded a manufacturing plant, Idaho National Harvester Co., which put the design and dream of two others into horse drawn/pushed grain harvesters. When Cornelius Quesnell and A. M. Anderson failed to generate enough capital to produce their unique harvester, the Mix brothers provided financing for the prototype. Thanks to his persuasive power, Gub enlisted the financial support of brother-in-law Jerome Day, a successful mine owner in the Coeur d’Alene mining district who also served northern Idaho in the state legislature.
Day’s investment in the company, combined with the Mixes’ foresight, led to production of the “Little Idaho,” so dubbed because it was smaller and lighter than its competition. The harvester cut four-foot swaths and required four horses and two men to operate. Eventually, the harvester was redesigned to cut eight-foot swaths and was powered by six to eight horses, depending on the slope of the land.

“The first, and in our time, the only graduate of the agricultural course, it was a standing joke that Gub’s education cost the state and U.S. government(s) a sum between $50,000 and $75,000.”

Demand quickly outpaced production capacity. Eleven factory workers needed a week to build the 1909 model. Two years later, interest spread to South America and Russia, but the plant was capable of producing just two harvesters per week. They could have sold five to 10 times as many. Later that decade, in the aftermath of World War I, gasoline powered engines replaced the Little Idaho and production ceased entirely.

Even while engaged in manufacturing and sales, Gub was plowing new ground. Looking for an alternative to leaving grain fields fallow, he conceived an idea to plant field peas, beginning with an 80-acre plot in 1910.

“…cooperating with the university in an experiment to find suitable rotation crops to reduce the revenue loss incident to summer fallowing and yet minimize soil depletion through continuous cultivation. That first crop was something of a joke to many. From it, however, has grown a great industry” (Moscow Daily Star-Mirror, May 7, 1932).

Gainford’s experiment in politics was equally successful. Following in his father’s footsteps (Franklin was the first assessor in Nez Perce County before part of it became Latah County and was its first sheriff), Gainford ran for lieutenant governor in the late 1920s. His first attempt failed, but he was elected by the slim margin of 319 votes in 1930 and served a two-year term.
He left the position in 1932 to make a run at the U.S. Senate, rallying around farm issues in the Depression era. He was narrowly defeated in the primary, prompting a return to the land north of Moscow. With one foot firmly planted on the farm, the other reached out to politics again, culminating in a return to the position of lieutenant governor in 1936, this time by a decisive 25,000-vote margin.

fieldGainford didn’t need the forum of an elected position to advance the farming cause, though. When the Moscow Chamber of Commerce sought federal relief for financially burdened farmers in the early 1920s, Mix was a logical and willing advocate. The chamber, with Gainford serving as chair of its agricultural committee, sponsored a regional forum in 1923 that attracted producers from four states and several Congressional members. Among them was U.S. Senator Frank R. Gooding (Idaho).

Above photo: Gainford Mix walks in a sea of waving grain. Mix Family Collection

The senator and Gainford carried the economic plight of farmers to the nation’s capitol, sparking a five-week campaign to secure farm relief. Although Gooding’s bill never made it to the senate floor, it was reborn in the McNary-Haugen equalization fee increase, according to a Moscow newspaper account.

During his tenure as a farm leader, Mix also served as director of the first regional cooperative association in Idaho and was the first master of the local Grange—the largest in the Northwest at the time.

Gainford began farming actively in about 1905, shortly after the death of his mother Mary Grimes Mix. The homestead expanded to about 1,000 acres by 1919, including wheat, peas, and a very successful Holstein dairy operation. About half of the acres were sold during the post-Depression era, according to grandson Terry, who along with brother Jim, retains ownership of the remaining land.

There was virtually a seamless transition following the 1944 death of Gainford senior to his son who bore the same name, but was better known as “Tuff.” Like his father, the younger Gainford W. Mix also graduated from the University of Idaho, in the 1930s. He worked for a farm credit agency before assuming control of the family farm, which he operated until age prevented his day-to-day involvement. Still, he assisted tenant Kyle Hawley until moving to an extended care facility in his mid-80s. The younger Gainford passed away in September 2000, marking the passing of an agricultural era in Idaho.

Of the original homestead, only about 315 acres remain in the family, Terry says. His father sold 180 acres to the University of Idaho in the early 1970s, and what had been the center of the dairy operation now is occupied by the Palouse Empire Mall, directly north of the university campus.

Although Terry and Jim have not carried on the Mix farming tradition, and their offspring are not likely to do so, either, both are committed to keeping the land in the family.

“We feel very strongly that we maintain it as a farm,” says Terry. “There’s a lot of land being developed around it, but we want to maintain it as a family farm that is leased… It’s a sentimental decision. It’s the principle that the farm has been in the family more than 100 years, and we just don’t want to see it developed.”

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