President's Notes

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Let’s Recognize Our History by Sharing Sheep Stories

By Clint Krebs
ASI President

I think one thing all of us who raise sheep can be proud of is our history. Many have commented about ASI/NWGA, the oldest producer organization in the country, turning 150 – a truly magical mark.

I like the history of raising sheep, and over the next few months I will try to relate a few of the historical events that I have found interesting. I also know there are many other stories out there, so I am asking you to send your stories – either to me or to Ralph with Sheep Industry News (ralph@sheepusa.org). Taking this approach, I am guessing we will learn a good deal about our industry’s history over the next several months.

I don’t have to look far for history. Our ranch is on the Oregon Trail, and there are still visible ruts from the covered wagons that travelled across this part of the country 170-plus years ago.

What most people do not realize is that these wagon trains trailed thousands of sheep. It was their walking food source. They didn’t have time to hunt buffalo. In fact, as you look at most human migrations around the world, or in the case of historical leaders taking their armies to invade Europe, they all took sheep. Their success and survival depended on food and fiber.

The Oregon Trail immigrants were headed to the fertile Willamette Valley because my part of the Oregon Territory – the eastern two-thirds – is anything but fertile. One Scottish immigrant wrote in his diary after camping near where I live, “If this God-forsaken hell be the Oregon Country, then the lord has allowed me to make the biggest mistake of my life.”

But it is “home sweet home to me.”

THE WAGON TRAINS reached the Willamette Valley with their sheep. They found in their “new promised land.” Foot-rot and worms were abundant, or just as prevalent as they were back home. It did not take very long before the sheep were brought back into Eastern Oregon, where they thrived on desert winter pasture and high altitude summer mountain pastures. There were millions of sheep and only a few thousand people, so there were no markets for the meat. The wagon train era was pretty short-lived as railroads were built making the trip easier.

Once the railroads were completed, wool quickly became king in Oregon. The now-deserted town of Shaniko, with its own, “specifically built branch railroad line,” shipped millions of pounds of wool, primarily to manufactures on the east coast.

Soon there became too many sheep in the Oregon Country, and people decided to trail them back east to find markets for their breeding stock, and also for mutton. They would sell what they could along the way to whoever had money, but the further east they went the more the sheep were worth. Everyone has probably heard of the cattle drives from Texas into the railheads in Kansas. The numbers of cattle trailed were very small as compared to the hundreds of thousands of sheep which left Oregon and trailed east, some as far as Ohio.

I have read that Christopher Columbus brought sheep to North America on his second voyage. I have heard the Merino in Australia originated in Vermont. I know the missions in California had many sheep, so I hope to hear stories from around the country about our history. If I don’t hear from you I will be forced to make things up.

CIRCLING BACK to more recent history, people asked me at this year’s convention what it was like being president, and if being president takes up a lot of time. I told them that my job was to listen, which I try very hard to accomplish.

Generally, people are eager to tell me about what is being done correctly and occasionally they point out areas where improvement could be made. This is actually a very good process, because I had four people tell me in Charleston that, unlike the sewn in labels on the back of my shirts that say Pendleton or Ralph Lauren that should never be removed, (and I had done that correctly) the labels straight-pinned to the front of my shirt that read “Friday morning” or “Saturday night” should be removed.

Apparently, I had done this incorrectly, but lucky for me there weren’t more than four people in the elevator.

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