In 1891, the year John and Fanny McCulloch’s second child Xerpha Mae was born in Wisconsin, the New York Times ran a story extolling the “Fertile Lands of the North Pacific Coast,” promising high yields, good weather, and plenty of property yet to be homesteaded.
Nine years later, the McCullochs packed up Xerpha and her two sisters and headed west to find their fortune in the fields of Washington. They traveled by covered wagon to South Dakota and from there by train to the Big Bend area on the east side of the state. They finally arrived at their homestead in 1903. In a 1970 letter to her granddaughter, Janice Gaines Walker, Xerpha describes riding the last 35 miles to the property on an old “flea bitten” gray named Mike.
Despite the glowing news articles, the McCullochs discovered that the place they chose really wasn’t ideal for farming. It was dry and windy, and the scant rain prevented them from growing a decent crop of wheat. They had to abandon their homestead and move to the small central Washington town of Othello to carve out a living. Since Othello had only a grade school, Xerpha had to leave her family to finish high school. She moved 50 miles away to Ritzville, where she lived with an older German woman and studied with just eight other students. Bright and hardworking, Xerpha was the valedictorian.
During her time in Ritzville, Xerpha befriended a handsome young man a few years her senior, Edward Gaines. They had many things in common. Edward, too, had been born back east and had migrated with his family to Washington. He was raised on a farm in Chewelah, working a thresher and manning a sawmill as a teen. He had attended Cheney State Normal School (now Eastern Washington University), where he trained to be a teacher. He was a clever student, graduating a year early and going to Ritzville to fill a post as teacher and principal.
The pair met 1907, shortly after Edward arrived for the job teaching sixth and seventh graders. The 16-year-old girl was a beauty, with dark, curly hair, a trim figure, and a sharp intellect. While there was nothing improper in their friendship, they had to keep it a secret. People would talk; she was a student and he the principal of Lincoln School.
The secret didn’t last long. Summer 2008 the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of Edward and Xerpha Gaines returned to eastern Washington. They talked and laughed, piecing together their own memories of Edward and Xerpha, and mentioning the bundle of letters that gave them the details of their grandparent’s romance.
At the end of the reunion, they delivered to Washington State University an astonishing gift–Xerpha’s steamer trunk which holds nearly a century of private papers detailing the life of a woman whose story is not only threaded through the University’s, but also through the story of agriculture in Washington State.
Worn and heavy, with a torn label bearing Xerpha’s name on the side, the trunk contains a variety of treasures: a prayer book, a tiny box full of beads, a wedding dress, an envelope of pictures of Xerpha as a girl, Edward Gaines’s correspondence as a scientist, and a water-stained box bearing the label “Old Hampshire Bond: The Stationery of a Gentleman.”
The stationery box invites more scrutiny: Inside is a stack of letters wrapped with a white silk ribbon, now yellowed and frayed. The first, dated May 29, 1910, is addressed to Miss Xerpha McCulloch, Othello, Wash. It starts with “Dear–Sister?–Xerpha?–Friend? Which shall it be?” Edward describes their parting at the Ritzville station as he watched Xerpha board the train for home. A few hours later, the letter notes, Edward got on another train bound for Spokane, as he made his way to Pullman where he was a student at Washington State College.
The content is hardly the hot words of young lovers, though. Throughout the dozens of letters covering two full years, they discuss teaching Sunday school, Edward’s agronomy studies, Xerpha’s work at the Othello post office, her mother’s health, and his visits home to his family’s farm.
Among them are notes he jotted off to her before class in Pullman, meandering letters written late at night, and postcards from his travels around the state. “Why did fate decree that the girl of my choice should live too far away to visit when the spring days are loveliest?” he asked on April 23, 1911, though in the same letter he teased her with the story of taking another young lady to a lecture. Into one, he tucked a small flower. In another he encouraged her to study photography and learn to use a microscope, skills that might someday help him in his work.
Among the last of the letters from 1911 is the sign off, “Enough for one time, sincerely, I am in love with you, Edd.”
Though the letters show they spent more time apart than together, Xerpha and Edward were married in June of 1912. The couple returned to Pullman where, after graduating, Edward had a post as assistant cerealist and instructor in agronomy for $900 a year. They settled into a farmhouse close to campus and downtown (on what is now College Hill) and started life together. In a few short years their family had grown to include Edward M., Mae, John, and little Grant.
During the early days of their marriage, another batch of postcards and letters on hotel stationery reveal that Edward traveled around the West attending agriculture shows and visiting universities and research stations. He was gathering ideas to bring back to the program at Washington State. By 1917, he was the chief cerealist and an assistant professor.
While building the cereal program at Washington State, Edward realized he needed to develop professionally. That meant leaving Pullman, and Xerpha, for a time in the early 1920s to attend Harvard and earn a doctorate in genetics.
Edward urged Xerpha to go to school as soon as the children were old enough to take on some of the household tasks. “He was that rare creature–a thoroughly masculine man who was totally in sympathy with feminist ideals,” wrote his daughter Mae Gaines Kent in her memoir.
Pursuing her own interests as well as an area of study that would complement Edward’s, Xerpha dove into botany, graduating in 1930.
But her education didn’t end there. Edward was the first member of Washington State’s faculty to be granted a paid sabbatical, and with it he provided his family the rare opportunity of living abroad. The summer after Xerpha completed her degree, the Gaineses, including all four children, sailed to Europe. They found a home base in England and Edward traveled into the U.S.S.R. and Sweden to meet with soil scientists and geneticists. The family toured historical sites, soaked up the culture, and lived in Germany for a time.
The two oldest children, Edward M. and Mae, returned home to Pullman that fall because Edward was in college as a botany major and Mae was finishing high school. In a letter Xerpha sent to her son from Germany she jokes that she hopes Dr. Clements finds “the son a better botany student than the mother was.”
While Edward senior was off working, Xerpha was occupied with the two youngest children. Still she found time to continue her interest in botany, particularly weeds. In one postcard home to his daughter, Edward notes he bought Xerpha three reference books on weed identification. “They are a great help–though in German.”
After Europe, the Gaines family returned to Pullman and welcomed and supported many a student and young scientist at their home. They also saw their two older children through college and watched them find partners and marry. Then their son John enrolled at WSC, followed eventually by their youngest, Grant ’43.
The summer of 1939 was eventful for Xerpha. Just when things at home seemed to quiet down, her daughter gave birth to twin boys. Xerpha traveled to Mae’s bedside in Oregon and stayed several weeks to help her daughter through a difficult
Though the tone of correspondence between Xerpha and Edward during this trip was happy, she came home at the end of July to find her husband in a sorry state. He was fatigued, he couldn’t lift his feet, and his hands trembled. After visiting a doctor in Spokane, they learned he had Parkinson’s disease.
He was just 53 and very active in his faculty position. The diagnoses prompted them to move to a house closer to campus, which they adapted for his comfort. For a time he continued working, even walking to work. By 1942, though, Edward was unable to get out of bed. Xerpha became his full-time nurse, caring for Edward on her own. Just before his death, she had to surrender him to the hospital in Colfax.
According to her daughter’s memoir, Xerpha went along, signing on as a volunteer nurse’s aide so she could help as much as possible.
Edward died in August 1944. All of Xerpha’s children came home for the funeral. They didn’t know it, but it would be the last time they would all be together. A few years later John would die in a plane crash, and Grant would succumb to a brain tumor.
After Edward’s death and her children grown, Xerpha found herself at loose ends. She set out to find new meaning for her life in Pullman. With the help of her botany degree and her solid knowledge of local plants, she found a position as assistant curator with the University’s herbarium, a library of dried plants collected and identified to aid students and scientists in their research.
“I am practically settled for the next school year in the botany department,” Xerpha wrote to her children not long after Edward’s funeral. “I was amazed at the things I might do besides this job and the position of house mother.” She lists library acquisitions, teaching English, a job at the student store, and assisting in the education department as possibilities. “Times are not what they used to be when a woman of fifty-three can have these opportunities.”
Among those opportunities was the chance to assist with WSC President Enoch Bryan’s history of WSU. Xerpha, with her meticulous attention to detail and deep knowledge of the University, was an ideal assistant for compiling the index for the book. She also served on the board of her church, was a house mother for the Farm House, and took part in the Pullman chapter of the American Association of University Women.
“She was a very nice lady,” says Betty Lee ‘54, who was a student working a summer job at the herbarium when she met Xerpha. “And she was smart,” says Lee, noting how skilled the older woman was at identifying new plants. Mrs. Gaines would often go out–around Pullman and Moscow–and collect for the herbarium, says Lee. “She was very well known in the community for her work as well as for her community service.”
Xerpha wasn’t one to be idle. She never watched television. She always had tenants living in her house, often visiting scholars and new faculty. She also found time to follow her curiosity–to some of the remotest parts of the state.
Xerpha struck up a professional friendship with Theo H. Sheffer, a retired U.S. Department of Agriculture employee who was working for the U.S. Biological Survey in connection with the construction of the Columbia Basin Project. Here a new type of correspondence in Xerpha’s life emerges, one that blends business with friendship. These letters are already housed in WSU’s archives.
Every year Sheffer would head into the Grand Coulee to collect botanical specimens, creating a record before the area was inundated upon the completion of the dams. In spring of 1950, Xerpha, then 59, went along. The first year was such a success, Sheffer invited her again to collect “along the slopes and benches that will be flooded when the Chief Joseph Dam will back the waters of the Columbia perhaps nearly to the Coulee Dam.” He noted that it was only February, and “days of radiant sunshine and nights filled with stars will wait around the corner for a while. All of which does not imply that there will not also be rough [terrain], cheat grass stickers, and maybe an occasional rattlesnake.”
For seven years the two met each spring and summer for a several-day collecting expedition. They carried presses, did some hiking and climbing, but shied away from work requiring “cliff scramblers and perhaps a row boat in some places,” notes one of Sheffer’s letters. They also befriended the “old-timers,” longtime residents who had been living along the areas to be flooded and who would give them permission to hunt on their land and could guide them to new plants. All her work was done independently of Washington State University and the botany department, a fact that Xerpha was adamant be noted. “The department has never been asked, nor has it offered to stand any expense of our collecting trips, but it has been the recipient of our collections,” she wrote to Sheffer.
Though her supervisor wasn’t much interested in the project, in the latter years, Xerpha found a kindred spirit in Betty Higinbotham, the wife of the botany chair, who eagerly joined Xerpha’s plant expeditions.
Out of these trips along the Columbia came one of Xerpha’s first academic publications, a “Botanical Survey of the Grand Coulee.” She also occasionally co-authored papers with graduate students on things like a treatise on poisonous plants. But the “Botanical Survey” was important to her. She spent several years compiling the information from Sheffer’s and her own collecting trips. “You seem to have the harder part of our collaboration,” Sheffer wrote, noting that she had to be both collector and botanist.
Meanwhile, Xerpha had her work life at WSU. She urged young Betty Lee to apply for a job at the Seed Lab after graduation, around the time she was to go there herself. Perhaps she saw in Betty someone she would enjoy working with and training. Betty performed the secretarial work and, under Xerpha’s tutelage, assisted in checking the quality of the seed that came through.
At Betty’s apartment in Pullman this fall, we sit on the couch in her small living room and peek into a photo album. The last picture is an 8×10 black and white of Xerpha and Betty at a party in the seed house. They’re smiling and standing next to a cake. The department always held parties there because they had such a large table, says Betty. It was a lively place to work. She and Xerpha spent their mornings at the table examining seeds with a magnifying lamp, scrutinizing the sample for weed seeds and other problems. Then they sprouted the seeds to determine their germination rates. Occassionally people would wander in with a plant they needed help identifying. They almost always went to Xerpha.
While at work, Xerpha would sometimes talk about her family, especially her daughter Mae. Sometimes she would wonder where she’d be if Edward hadn’t died at such an early age, says Betty. She also talked about how the University was just waiting to buy her house, a structure near Waller Hall that stood in the way of campus expansion.
And then there was her near encyclopedic knowledge of plants, says Betty. “She could have very well headed the seed lab,” she says.
Others agree. USDA agronomist Bob Allen remembers meeting Xerpha when he was hired as a scientist in 1957, and then coming to rely on her. “She was an outstanding botanist/plant taxonomist. You couldn’t stump her,” he says. He brought her many plants, even some from Kansas, where he had attended graduate school. “I’d say, ‘What is this weed?,’ and she’d say, ‘Didn’t they teach you plant taxonomy in Kansas?’”
“She was a gifted scientist, and in total command of what she was doing,” says Allen. “She was underemployed, that’s for sure.”
Xerpha kept seeking adventure. In the late 1950s she expanded her collecting trips to include Glen Canyon, Arizona. There she joined a team of archeologists in an expedition organized by the Museum o
f Northern Arizona. They explored along the Colorado River canyon and its glens before the area was flooded by the dam. The four-week trip resulted in a carefully indexed collection and list of plants including mosses, ferns, and gymnosperms.
According to Gaines family lore, Xerpha was required to be the cook on that trip. It didn’t quite work out to the benefit of the expedition. “We say it was a good thing she was a good botanist, because she was a horrible cook,” says her great-granddaughter Jocelyn Liu.
Whether Xerpha was a threat to her supervisors, as some have suggested, or just part of an older WSU, she was urged to retire. It took three years of pressure before she finally agreed to go. And by then, she already had another big project in mind. She may have left her job in the Seed Lab, but people still brought her plants. She worked out of her house, doing taxonomy at her kitchen table. “We teased her about the buckets of weeds often left on her doorstep by her county agent friends around the state, or by farmers whose fields were being invaded by unidentified species of plant enemies,” her daughter Mae writes in her memoir.
She had an astonishing talent for finding and identifying the weeds of the Northwest, says Rich Old, author and weed scientist. He points to the Ventenata dubia, a slender weed that most farmers and experts hadn’t yet recognized in the fields when he was in graduate school in the 1980s. But Xerpha had already spotted and identified it back in the 1960s, he says.
She was constantly collecting, says Janice Gaines Walker, Xerpha’s granddaughter through her son Grant. Janice remembers sitting on Xerpha’s lap and learning to look at seeds through a microscope. She also recalls her grandmother taking off on long walks to collect specimens. “She always seemed busy with a project.” By the time of her granddaughter’s remembrance, Xerpha was deep into what is her greatest contribution to botany in the Pacific Northwest–a book titled Weeds of Eastern Washington.
Collaborating with Dean Swan, WSU extension specialist, and an illustrator named H.C. Keller, Xerpha compiled a comprehensive list of the region’s weed species, double checking everything with local research scientists and extension agents, like Roland Shirman. “I don’t think I ever met anyone who was more meticulous in detail,” he says. She asked for his help in reviewing the illustrations for her book. “She’d come wafting into the office and say, ‘Oh, do you have a minute?’ Of course, I always did.”
In 1969, after exploratory surgery in Spokane, Xerpha was diagnosed with liver cancer. She preferred to call it by its Latin name, hepatocellular carcinoma, joking to her children that she thought it sounded more impressive. She returned home to tidy up her life, resign from community work, and finish her book. But by this time the original publishers had backed out of the project. Xerpha finished the book that summer. It was the culmination of her life’s work collecting and identifying and recording.
She took a turn for the worse in September and moved to a convalescent home where she would be closer to her daughter Mae and her family. She died in Spokane on October 31, at age 79, not knowing if her book would ever be published.
Two years later her book was published, to this day a definitive text for the region.
Besides the notes in the archives, and samples in the herbarium, traces of Xerpha Gaines can still be found throughout Pullman. Fourteen years after her death, yet another of her descendants enrolled at Washington State. This time, it was her daughter Mae’s granddaughter, Jocelyn Mae Kent (Liu). Jocelyn’s father, Jay Kent ’61 PhD ’66, was one of the twin boys born to Mae in 1939. Jocelyn was drawn to WSU because of the family legacy as well as the opportunity to study biology and eventually become a veterinarian.
She was aware of the Gaines’s long presence in Pullman, and of their ties to the WSU. “I knew my great grandmother had lived there on campus. I knew that she had been a respected botanist. And I knew that she had done a ton of work to put together plant samples for the herbarium.” She even knew that a small street near campus bore the Gaines name.
But fate had a final gift for Jocelyn. As a vet student, she found herself house sitting in an old farmhouse near campus. Not until the owner handed her the keys did she learn that the house on Gaines Road was the one where more than a half-century earlier Xerpha had raised her family.
This year, when she was preparing for the Gaines family reunion, Jocelyn thought about the trunk, which was being stored in Western Washington at a relative’s house. She was the last one to really look through it, and she realized it might be well protected, and maybe even useful, in the hands of the University. So she loaded it in her car and brought it home.