Gibbs M. Smith always wanted to be a history professor. But while in pursuit of his master’s degree, Smith wrote a dissertation on Joe Hill–American labor martyr, proletarian folk hero, and songwriter–that profoundly changed his life. After the book was published by the University of Utah press and made into a movie, Gibbs started entertaining the idea of starting his own publishing company. While riding a cable car in San Francisco and contemplating this venture, he wrote Alfred Knopf a letter. "In my view, he was the greatest publisher in America," reflects Smith. Knopf wrote back with words of encouragement; later they spoke over the phone. Gibbs now had the inspiration needed to embark upon this extraordinary entrepreneurial adventure. In 1969, Gibbs and his wife, Catherine, started the company known today as Gibbs Smith, Publisher. With $12,000 in cash earned from the Smiths’ work on the movie Joe Hill, the company published four initial books, which would be used as supplementary texts in college history classes. The first few years were tough, as Gibbs and his wife, Cathy, ran the company out of their studio apartment in Santa Barbara.
In 1973, the company relocated to Utah, where Gibbs and Cathy reinvested profits back into the business and lived on savings. They spent the first summer there converting an old barn (built in 1916) on the family farm into offices. It was a race against time, as the barn had no roof and winter was rapidly approaching. During that summer they also managed to publish a new textbook, Utah’s Heritage. This proved to be a very wise decision, as the company’s textbook division provided financial stability during the early years.