Many people who had worked with Fallon native Gwen Washburn considered her a friend of agriculture and a community leader whose compassion to make Churchill County a better place for thousands of residents never wavered as did her love for the valley she called home for 72 years.
Washburn, who was born in Fallon to Art and Phyllis Mathewson and attended school here, passed away July 9 after a short battle with cancer. A Celebration of Life is scheduled for Saturday at 11 a.m. at Epworth United Methodist Church with a reception to follow at Wolf Center.
Gwen Washburn had a strong love for her family but especially for her husband Bill. High-school sweethearts, they married in December 1961 of their senior year at Churchill County High School. Their admiration for each other may have grown out of puppy love when both were younger.
“She lived a mile down the road,” Bill Washburn said, recollecting the years when they knew each other in grade school.
“It started long before we got into high school, I guess,” Bill added, surrounded by his family this week at the dining-room table at their Harrigan Road ranch. “I supposedly kicked some dirt in her shoes, and that made us miss the bus or something like that. Then someone took us home.”
Their friendship grew in high school when Bill began driving a school bus, something seniors could do in the early 1960s.
“I picked her and her sisters up, and it just went from there,” he said with a smile.
Bill and Gwen tied the knot midway through their senior year. Daughter-in-law Tuti Washburn said it was unheard of for students to marry while still in high school.
“We just got married,” Bill said, “but we did have to have our parents’ permission.”
Tuti and her husband, Wes, though, waited a month after high-school graduation before they married 32 years ago. Their courtship also had its roots when they both knew each other in grade school.
Both Bill and Gwen became involved with the farm life with Tuti and Wes, their son, something Gwen enjoyed for the next six decades. The Washburns worked as a team from the beginning. Farm life became Gwen’s passion.
“She took to hay cutting quickly,” Bill said. “I had hay fever. Back in those days the swathers were open, and hay got into my face. I couldn’t cut the first crop, so she did. She loved cutting hay.”
In addition to her work in the field, Gwen Washburn also enjoyed a creative side. Tuti Washburn said Gwen was a wonderful cook and did needlework and also loved gardening, camping, researching genealogy and doing crossword puzzles.
“She had something going on all the time … in three to four directions,” Wes Washburn said.
Tuti Washburn said her mother-in-law loved her family and grandchildren. She said Gwen was proud of her four granddaughters.
Gwen’s sister Kathy Berg, who now lives in New Mexico to be closer to her son’s family and grandchildren, said Gwen was a very organized person. Six weeks ago, she said Gwen was trying to organize a trip for the families. Berg said her sister loved to travel and especially enjoyed camping with Bill.
“I don’t know if she had a favorite place, but we enjoyed going to Big Creek … that was really nice,” he said. “We’d go for a day or two to slip away.”
Their travels also took them to many of Nevada’s small towns when Wes competed in high school rodeo.
“Every town along Interstate 80,” Berg interjected.
Berg said Bill and Gwen loved to travel when they had the time. Several years ago, they visited Montana and saw Custer National Cemetery at Little Bighorn Battlefield, and five years ago they drove to Iowa to meet distant relatives. Each stop on their journeys intrigued Gwen who was a history buff of mining towns and museums.
Their ranch also became part of Nevada’s history in 2009 when it was named a Centennial ranch. The Agricultural Council of Nevada, the Nevada Farm Bureau, Nevada Cattleman’s Association, Nevada Department of Agriculture and the State Historic Preservation Office supported the Centennial program.
Perfect Vista Ranches, better known as the Newcomb-Mathewson-Washburn Ranch, borders Harrigan Road from Union Lane south to Berney Road. The ranch was first deeded to Gwen’s great-grandmother in 1909.
The ranch once had several outbuildings like chicken houses, barns and shops, but the only original structure remaining is the adobe block cellar/ice house.
Gwen and Bill began farming the ranch in 1973 and purchased the property from her mother in 1991. Bill Washburn brought a 240-acre ranch into the family , and he and Gwen purchased a 160-acre section to connect the Mathewson and Washburn ranches. The Washburns currently grow alfalfa, corn, oats and Sudan grass. They also run about 400 cow and calf pairs.
In looking back at the last several weeks, Tuti Washburn said Gwen was a planner in her final days. She gave her sisters specific items to accomplish including tasks for her funeral.
“The last few weeks she wanted things done,” Tuti said. “She was not afraid to die, but she had things to do. In the short time, she wanted the last say.”
Her family said Gwen was the matriarch of the family, and she will be missed. Berg said after their mother died in 2010, Gwen was the glue.
“She did a lot for everyone and had a smile on her face,’” Wes said.
In looking back at her life, Berg said her sister was a great example for others to emulate, while Tuti said Gwen accomplished much in her lifetime.
Bill’s two-word description summed up everyone’s feelings:
AGRICULTURE AND POLITICS
Washburn and agriculture complemented each other like salt and pepper. They were meant for each other. Doug Busselman, executive vice president of the Nevada Farm Bureau, first met Gwen Washburn in the late 1980s and said they had a very good working relationship.
“I worked with her not only on local matters pertaining to Churchill County but we worked closely on a lot of agriculture issues at the state level,” Busselman said. “She was a real champion for agriculture. Her leadership will be sorely missed as we go forward.”
In reflecting on her past work in the agriculture arena,Busselman said she provided a strong voice for the counties but also came up with original ideas in smoothing over any differences with the local University of Nevada Cooperative Extension office. Busselman said the Churchill County group provided the model for other counties to improve their working relationships with cooperative extension, an important tool that helps ranchers and farmers.
Washburn, though, brought a wealth of experience and knowledge to local agriculture issues beginning in the early 1960s when she belonged to 4-H. As the years progressed, Washburn participated in livestock judging and the beef program and received a “Friend of 4H” award in 2001. In addition to her work with both the Churchill County and Nevada Farm Bureau, Washburn served two terms on the Mosquito Abatement District for two terms.
Washburn parlayed a wealth of experience into her first campaign for Churchill County Commission. She had spent 10 years in the savings and loan business, and in 1990, she and her sisters entered the retail clothing business where they owned two stores, one in Winnemucca and the other in Fallon. Additionally, Washburn gained additional experience as a bookkeeper for both the Churchill County Farm Bureau and the Lahontan Conservation District.
In 1994, retiring Commissioner Cyril Schank met with Gwen and decided she should run because of her background in business, ranching and politics. She defeated Maurice Hanifan, 3,358 votes to 2,250. She served for 16 years, ending her position on the board in 2010 because of term limits. Brad Goetsch was the last county manager to work with Washburn, who had served for 10 years as chairwoman. He said she had an interest in both farming and other issues affecting the county.
“She had a vision for looking ahead such as the need to build a better infrastructure,” Goetsch said, adding Washburn also had a keen awareness of preserving the water table for future generations.
Several accomplishments occurred during Goetsch’s tenure as county manager. He said Washburn led the effort to implement a new justice system, which resulted in a juvenile justice center, and she pushed for agriculture easements that provided a bumper between county areas and Naval Air Station Fallon. The easements restricted growth next to the air station unlike the growth that has wrapped itself around Nellis Air Force Base east of Las Vegas.
“She had the ability to understand what needed to be done,” Goetsch added. “She was a quiet and private person, but she did a lot for the valley.”
Washburn also became involved with the Churchill Economic Development Authority because she wanted future growth to be consistent and co-exist with agriculture.
“She did not want us to become a bedroom community,” Goetsch said. “Gwen wanted beneficial and planned growth.”
B.J. Selinder, who served as county manager until 2004 and then represented the county as a lobbyist at the Nevada Legislature, said Washburn was always available when issues came up affecting the counties, especially Churchill. He said her time on the commission, though, was helpful in dealing with those issues. Selinder said Washburn’s interest in agriculture, ranching or cattle operations was always important .
“We contacted each other regularly,” Selinder said of his lobbyist days. “She was a good resource for expounding on the county commission.”
Selinder echoed Goetsch’s comments regarding Washburn’s desire to improve county services including the roads. The retired county manager said Washburn’s standpoint focused on providing for the rural part of Churchill County.
In addition to her work with CEDA, Washburn also worked with the Northern Nevada Development Authority and the Nevada Association of Counties and provided input to other county commissions around the Silver State.
Washburn championed the four-lane highway between Fallon and Fernley and helped create Liberty Pond, improve the water and waste water system and acquire the Soda Lake recreation area. While many residents encountered Washburn’s business-like side, those who knew her saw a kind, understanding person.
“Once you got to know her, she was a very warm individual, very accepting (of others) and she had a great ability to communicate with people and make them feel comfortable,” Selinder said. “She related to people very well, but she could be hard and quite forceful when she needed to be.”
Selinder, without hesitation, called her a pioneer for the county.
Commissioner Norm Frey. who succeeded Washburn as chair, said their working relationship was excellent.
“We got along very well,” he said. “She was very diligent in her work and was really dedicated,” he said.
Foremost, though, was her ability to find solutions to problems. In addition to her committee work, he said Washburn also had an active role with the Nevada Rural Housing Authority and the Carson Water Subconservancy District.
“We worked on many projects together. It was great working with Gwen for 10 years,” Frey said. “She understood local issues very well.”
Ken Tedford became Fallon mayor one year after voters elected Washburn to the commission. He said the city and county had a good, working relationship.
“She was very easy to work with and very easy to talk to,” Tedford said. “She was a wonderful lady.”
Tedford said he and Washburn talked regularly about governmental issues and how to improve both Churchill County and Fallon. During her time in office, Tedford said the public doesn’t realize how many times they met to discuss issues and common problems.
“We had many discussions, and I found her to be open,” Tedford said, adding they encountered similar problems in governing.
One characteristic about Washburn immediately struck Tedford and that was her astuteness to county business and her knowledge of the area. As previously mentioned by others, Tedford favored her vision to implement a buffer zone around NAS Fallon to prevent growth edging up to the fence.
Tedford said he will be forever grateful for the longtime families who have made Churchill County their home but laments the loss of their knowledge of the area.
When Gwen Washburn retired after her fourth term, she told those at a gathering to honor her that she would miss her constituents the most.
“I’m going to miss the people,” Washburn said. “I’ve met so many wonderful people in the process of this. I always appreciated it when I got phone calls from people I know or didn’t know, who gave their opinions on an item on the agenda — that helped me make my decisions.”