Friday, October 9, 2009

Happy Trails Ahead

TrailingSheepFest6 Today I’m off and flying to my hometown in Idaho to visit my Mom. This weekend I’ll be taking her to see the Trailing of the Sheep Festival in Ketchum, Idaho. Of course, I’ll be taking my camera to capture the fun and hopefully we’ll be stopping at some good places to eat on the way.

Here’s a little history of the Trailing of the Sheep Festival and what I have to look forward to…

Sheep figure prominently in the history of man providing him food and fiber for clothing. The story of sheep fills the pages of western Asia and European history. England and Spain were large producers in the middle ages and introduced the animals into the New World. Those in the western United States were brought in by the Spanish through South America and Mexico in the 16th and 17th century.

In the south west region of Idaho, it is said that John Hailey brought the first sheep into the Wood River Valley in the late 1860's. At that time, Idaho recorded a breeding sheep population of 14,000. As the mines began to play out in the Wood River Valley, the sheep industry filled an increasingly large role in the local economy. By 1890 there were a reported 614,000 sheep in Idaho. A 1905 newspaper photograph of a shearing plant in neighboring Picabo states that 95,000 sheep were sheared that week. In 1918 the sheep population reached 2.65 million*, almost six times the state's human population. (It was not until the 1970 census, after a large decline in the sheep industry and an influx of new residents, that human numbers finally exceed sheep in Idaho - 700,000 to 687,000.)

During this time, thousands of lambs were shipped by railroad from Hill City, Fairfield, Picabo, Bellevue, Hailey and Ketchum to markets around the west. As a major sheep center, Ketchum was second only to Sydney, Australia.

When Sun Valley was opening its winter ski resort in 1936, sheepman Jack Lane was holding forth at his general store in Ketchum. It served as the sheep center where ranchers congregated to swap stories about prices and weather. Today the building is still located at the corner of Main Street and Sun Valley Road and houses Starbucks Coffee.

During the depression, when lamb prices plummeted, Lane was one of the few who extended credit to the sheepmen. It took some men four or five years to pay off their debts but Lane stuck by them. Of this famous gathering place Jack Lane's son Pete recalled, "They had telegrams come in daily with different livestock prices from Omaha, Chicago, and Sioux City and Saint Joe, Kansas City and later on Denver and Ogden. It was a whole life of fraternity...there was tremendous competition not so much for the price you got, but the weight of your lambs and how good they looked. It was a real pride in doing business."

In this region of Idaho, the Scots, men like James Laidlaw, were among the first to settle into the sheep business successfully. Laidlaw arrived in the region with only the clothes he wore. He worked as a herder and took his pay in sheep. When he had gathered enough animals he started his own operation in the Muldoon area bringing in relatives and friends from Scotland to homestead and work with him. He went on to distinguish himself developing some of the finest lambs in the state including the Panama breed, which he created crossing a Lincoln ewe and Rambolais buck. He is credited with bringing the first Suffolk sheep into Idaho. Today the headquarters of the Laidlaw ranch has been incorporated into Flat Top Sheep Company, sheep outfit started by John Thomas (later U.S. Senator) in the 1920's. Today it is run by the third and fourth generation of Thomas' family, John and Tom Peavey.

In addition to the Scottish influence the role of the Basques in the sheep industry was critical to its success. They began to arrive in the U.S. from their homeland in northern Spain in the mid-1850. They came in response to the gold rush but soon they began migrating around the west finding jobs as sheepherders. Their hard work and dependability made it possible for sheep operators to leave large numbers of sheep in lonely and remote mountain pastures in their attentive care. Many Basques stayed on in this country often beginning their own sheep operations - the Cenarrusas, Etcheverrys, Guerrys and Oxarangos among the others. Today most Idaho herders are Peruvian. There are some Mexican, Chilean, and several Mongolian men as well.

In 2004, as they have since the early part of the century, sheep migrate north each spring from the lower elevations of the Snake River plain of Southern Idaho, traveling in bands of close to 1,500 sheep, through the Wood River Valley to summer high mountain pastures. This traditional route takes them up Highway 75 through newly populated, residential areas and the towns of Bellevue, Hailey and Ketchum. Some continue their journey over Galena summit into the Sawtooth Mountains. In the fall, the animals retrace this trail south to desert fields and it is this return migration that we celebrate as the Trailing of the Sheep Festival.

In 1997 the Wood River Valley began this proud tradition of honoring the history and heritage of sheep ranching in the region. We invite you to join us this year for the 12th Annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival of sheep and stories, of music, food, hikes, and history.


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