More Than Just a ‘Book Farmer:' Extension agent Gordon D. Cain remembered for improving lives

Kyle Peveto

On a Saturday in February 1922, the Richland Beacon-News ran a short item announcing a new agricultural expert in the parish, a county agent named Gordon D. Cain.

“The parish is fortunate indeed in being able to secure the service of this trained and practical student of agriculture,” the news story said.

The parish was fortunate. Richland Parish had seen six county agents come and go in a decade, and Cain had a great deal of experience. A graduate of LSU, he had grown up working farms in Louisiana and Mississippi and had been the assistant director of the agricultural experiment station in Calhoun for three years, according to a former LSU College of Agriculture professor, Gary Moore, who documented the story of this remarkable man.

However, residents of Richland Parish were known to harbor a mistrust of government workers. And these “book farmers” were not thought to have real-world farming experience. A letter to the editor the next week conveyed these concerns with a little sarcasm.

When Cain began work, he had a challenge on his hands. So, he worked hard to dispel the ideas many producers had. Cain met face to face with farmers to establish a local Farm Bureau to help them organize to buy seed and fertilizer in bulk and save money. He became a fixture on their farms, worming and vaccinating hogs, treating mules for colic and caring for chickens with botulism, which they called limberneck. And he walked their fields with them to monitor crops.

Over his 26 years working in Richland Parish, Cain became an indispensable member of the community. Serving through the Great Depression and World War II, he did more than assist with farm work. Cain helped modernize the rural parish and educate youth through the 4-H program.

To honor his legacy, the Cain family endowed a chair in 1988 for a professor who researches and teaches in a discipline related to agriculture. Earlier this year, the Gordon D. Cain Endowed Chair of Agriculture was awarded to Qinglin Wu, a researcher in the LSU AgCenter School of Renewable Natural Resources.

Born in 1886, Gordon Dunn Cain grew up working on farms and in stores in Louisiana and Mississippi. He graduated from Clinton High School in East Feliciana Parish in 1903, studied at LSU and worked as a grocery store clerk and a bookkeeper for a Mississippi lumber company.

In May of 1909, at 22, Cain graduated with a Bachelor of Science in chemistry. He planned to go to medical school, but he could not afford the tuition. Instead, he took a job teaching seventh grade in Slidell. His salary was $50 a month.

After the school year ended, Cain became an assistant chemist analyzing fertilizers and agricultural products in the Fertilizer and Foodstuff Laboratory of the Louisiana Agricultural Experiment Station. Cain and Ola Arbuthnot married in New Orleans in 1911 and started a family, having sons in 1912 and 1914. In 1918 Cain was hired as the assistant director of the North Louisiana Experiment Station at Calhoun in Ouachita Parish.

Tragedy struck not long after their third son was born. Ola died of the flu during the Spanish flu pandemic in January 1919. Later that year Cain married Ruth Finklea of Calhoun. They would have three daughters in addition to Cain’s three sons with Ola.

In 1922, the family moved to Richland Parish, and Cain worked tirelessly. In his diary Cain kept track of every hog he vaccinated and wrote down the mixture of turpentine and castor oil he used to treat limberneck in chickens, according to entries gathered by Professor Moore. On occasion Cain traveled across the country to assist with livestock purchases. Once he went to Wisconsin to help a parish resident buy dairy cows, and Cain recorded each cow’s pedigree records.

Around the parish seat of Rayville, the Cains were known for giving clothes and warm coats to children who needed them. Because they were one of the first families in town to have a telephone, anyone could stop by and make a call. After all, the house was never locked.

While Cain had gained the respect of the parish, funding his position was difficult in those times. At the end of 1926 Cain resigned after the parish could not pay his $275 per month salary. But the Richland Parish Police Jury did find $175 to hire him as a deputy clerk of court, and he continued serving the agricultural needs of the parish along with his desk job. By the summer of 1928 the parish was able to rehire Cain as the county agent.

During the Great Depression, Cain promoted new government programs to the parish. In one week he met with more than 3,000 people to explain the Cotton Acreage Reduction Program.

When the Rural Electrification Administration came to town, many rural residents were reluctant to sign on because of a fear of the new technology. But they trusted Cain. “If Gordon Cain said it was OK,” one extension agent said, “then they did it.”

In late 1948 Cain retired. At the end of his career the parish surprised him with a celebratory banquet. Cain introduced the next agent, Basil Doles, to the people of the parish.

“Within a week, Mr. Doles was accepted by the farmers and was on his way to being a successful agent in Richland Parish,” Professor Moore wrote in his biographical sketch. Cain’s decades of hard work had done away with the idea that college-educated “book farmers” were of no help.

Cain lived in Rayville until his death in 1958. After he died, the Beacon-News published an anonymous poem in his honor. “His heart and soul were in his work,” it read. “Not for a moment did he shirk, / He gave his all, his every bit,/ His time, his will and wit.” The poem was titled “A Real Man.”

Kyle Peveto is an assistant communications specialist with LSU AgCenter Communications and assistant editor of Louisiana Agriculture magazine.

(This article appears in the summer 2020 issue of Louisiana Agriculture.)

Qinglin Wu, professor in the School of Renewable Natural Resources, named Gordon D. Cain Chair of Agriculture

Man standing in lab.

Qinglin Wu, a researcher in the School of Renewable Natural Resources, was named the Gordon D. Cain Endowed Chair of Agriculture in February 2020. Wu's research focuses on wood and natural fiber polymer composites. Cain was a county agent in northeast Louisiana, beginning in the 1920s. One of his many achievements was helping bring electricity to rural areas at a time when people were suspicious of "new technology" and "book farmers." The Cain family established the endowment in 1988. Photo by Olivia McClure

9/4/2020 6:39:13 PM
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