“Books to us never can or will be primarily articles of merchandise to be produced as cheaply as possible and to be sold like slabs of bacon or packages of cereal over the counter. If there is anything that is really worthwhile in this mad jumble we call the twentieth century, it should be books.”
– J.H. Gipson
In 1895, a seed of industry was planted in newly-founded Caldwell, in the infant state of Idaho. Albert E. Gipson moved his family from Colorado to establish a publishing company. His first enterprise was a horticultural magazine for Idaho farmers, The Gem State Rural. In 1903, Gipson sold the magazine. Within a year the Gem State Rural Publishing Company dissolved and reorganized as a commercial printer. The name and emblem of William Caxton, England’s first printer, was adopted out of respect for Caxton’s reputation as a printer, writer, historian, and free press proponent.
In 1907, twenty-two year-old James Herrick Gipson joined the business as managing director, and prodded the company into growth. In 1913, Caxton acquired the Western Book and Manufacturing Company of Logan, Utah, The Idaho company became the exclusive printing and binding company west of Kansas City. In 1927 the company was named the Idaho State Textbook Depository and since that time has also functioned as the state distribution center for textbooks, technology and educational supplies to the schools of Idaho.
J.H. Gipson said the company did not intend to become a book publisher, but rather drifted into the publishing field. Early on, Caxton printed a few books for aspiring authors, mostly paper bound. The first real publishing venture was in 1925, Fred E. Lukens’ Idaho Citizen. A commercial success, the book also was adopted as an Idaho school textbook. This success inspired Gipson to look at publishing more seriously.
Most publishers were then located in the eastern US. Gipson realized it was hard for new writers, particularly those from the West, to attract the attention of eastern presses. His idea was to give writers assistance — printing their books and distributing them to reviewers. “Probably the real reason was that all of us love books and wanted to have some part in making them,” Gipson said. By 1928, Caxton had produced five titles. The following year, five more. In 1930, the output doubled. During the next six years, 100 new books were released.
On March 17, 1937, a paper stock room caught fire. Workers were unable to put out the blaze. By evening the plant was gone, including books and company records. But Caxton soon was back in business, using local presses in rented buildings. Within sixty days a new building was completed — the structure that still houses the business offices.
Until World War II, Caxton lost money on almost every title published. Despite the losses, Gipson felt repaid in producing at least a book or two which have a fair chance of gaining a place in the permanent literature of our country.
Gipson made good on his pledge. Several Caxton authors, including Vardis Fisher and Ayn Rand, received international recognition for their work. Rand’s fiction classic Anthem, has been in print for nearly 50 years.
Gipson’s two sons, Jim, Jr. and Gordon, grew up in the shadow of the Caxton plant. As youngsters, they swept floors and ran errands, learning the business from the ground up. Gordon became involved in the work he loved: book publishing. Jim, Jr. was drawn to the printing side of the establishment. The brothers worked alongside their father for nearly two decades.
After their father’s death in 1965, Jim, Jr. inherited the president’s chair, and Gordon became vice president. The brothers worked in tandem for twenty-seven years. Their partnership ended in 1991, when James Herrick Gipson, Jr. died. Gordon took over as president. His nephew (Jim, Jr’s son), David stepped into the vice presidential role, and grandnephews Ron and Scott joined the company in recent years. Currently third, fourth, and fifth generation Gipsons manage the company and about sixty employees.
The Caxton Printers, Ltd. has grown from a business once ridiculed for its rural western location, to one that has won international acclaim. The print shop and bindery are among the most respected in the country.
The Caxton publishing department has produced some of the best-known titles in Western Americana. Two books, Yellow Wolf, and Hear Me, My Chiefs! first published a half century ago, still are in print today. The two volumes are considered foundation books for any study of the Nez Perce Indians and that tribe’s epic attempt to flee to Canada in 1877. Today Caxton continues to release new titles about people, places and events that shaped the West.
Through hard times, fire and war, J.H. Gipson’s dream never dimmed. The words of his philosophy echo in the click of the keypads, the hum of the presses and the bustle of bindery.