John Day Fossil Beds
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Chapter Six:

Sheep Ranching

Introduced into central Oregon by pioneer ranchers in the early 1860s, sheep herds multiplied rapidly. Expansive grasslands with nearby stream courses for water and, by the mid-1880s, the advent of railroads, created an ideal setting for the new industry. Typically, sheep ranching involved the establishment of a home ranch or base, and location of a series of permanent, sheltered "sheep camps" adjacent to good grazing and water. Herdsmen were commonly responsible for between 1,000 and 2,000 head. Judith Keyes Kenny, whose family engaged in sheep raising for decades in Wheeler County, has commented: "Sheep are peculiar in the fact that they inspire strong emotions, either of affection or decided distaste. There is nothing romantic about the industry and all satisfaction must come from the work with the animals and the monetary gains" (Kenny 1963:104-105).

From the 1870s to the late 1930s, the production and management of sheep became one of the most important economic activities to develop in the upper John Day country. The build up of flocks, their management, shearing of wool, hauling of wool sacks, or driving of wethers and ewes to market were important occupations for decades. Local sheepman John Murray recalled in 1983 the impact of this enterprise in the vicinity of Dayville. He noted that there were forty-five or fifty thousand head of sheep within a radius of twenty miles. For every 1200 head of sheep, or band, there was a man with the sheep out in the hills at all the times, and there was a packer going back and forth for supplies at all the times (Murray 1984a: 18-19).

Many learned the sheep business as boys and moved directly into the work through accumulated experience. Sheep Rock area rancher Rhys Humphreys remembered:

Well, there was a lot of us kids started out at 12, 14 years old. The first year or two we would pack for a herder — take a pack string and stay with the herder all summer, learn his habits. After we did that a couple of years then we'd take a band. And you would start out at lambing time generally — go out about the first of April, or March, to lamb. Then you'd go to the timber with the sheep, and stay with them every day for a year or two, and you would have a little money.

In time, by saving, a young man could purchase his own flock and with careful management build it up (Humphreys 1984a: 3). James Cant, one of the more successful sheep ranchers of the early twentieth century in the region, started out with a $5,000 loan and a rented band of sheep, and from that built up his business. In the course of his lifetime, Cant secured 6500 acres of deeded land, and leased another 4500 acres of forest grazing allotments from the Bureau of Land Management (Murray 1984a: 14; Taylor and Gilbert 1996: 46).

Sheep production was time-intensive and all-consuming. Rhys Humphreys recalled that the job never ended, that someone had to be with the sheep twenty-four hours a day. He commented, "Your whole mind and concentration was on them sheep — everything. You had no outside interests whatever. If you did, then you wasn't a good hand" (Humphreys 1984a: 41-42).

Itinerant crews worked the countryside at shearing time. They traveled by buggy, saddle horse, or later automobile, working from ranch to ranch or establishing a base where herders brought in the flocks. John Murray described vividly the course of a day:

You sat down to your breakfast at six o'clock in the morning. You were ready to start the shearing machines at seven o'clock in the morning. You sheared until 11:30 a.m. and you went right back to work at one o'clock and you sheared until 5:30 p.m. and then you'd have your evening meal. You usually had ten men on your shearing crew and one man to grind the tools for you--to sharpen your tools. An old-time crew like that would shear, oh, an average maybe . . . 200 sheep in a day with the hand blades.

Fig. 46. Sheep shearers, tiers, and tool sharpeners worked as itinerant laborers (OrHi 12,200).

With the advent of shearing machines, a crew might shear as many as 900 sheep per day. "That was a pretty good day's work for a crew of ten men," he concluded (Murray 1984a: 30-31).

The shearers were served by a man who tied the wool, usually one man for an entire shearing crew. Another employee of the shearing crew grabbed the tied fleeces and jammed them one after another into a large sack fastened into a round frame. From time-to-time he tromped on the fleeces to pack them, eventually building up a sack weighing about 320 pounds. The men then loaded the sacks into wagons to haul to the railheads (Murray 1984a: 32). Larger ranches developed modern technology to speed up shearing. Rhys Humphreys recalled the Cant Ranch modernization:

They originally started with an old one-cylinder engine, powered with a big power wheel and a belt drive. You had a drive shaft that run belts, and it was all belt driven. Then Cants finally got an old Fordston tractor that had a big power wheel, and they run their plant off that old Fordston tractor for years. It run a drive shaft and geared up so's they could run the tractor real slow, and the pulleys were geared to run the machinery real fast. We never got electricity until 1956 (Humphreys 1984a: 21).

One element that did not change much over time was castrating or " marking" lambs. Rhys Humphreys described the procedure: "There used to be 3000 lambs down at the W-4 [Ranch], 1500 here at the Munros', we'd have maybe 1500, and Cants would have 1200-1500. The wether lambs are all marked with your teeth, and I had good teeth. So some years I would help mark all these lambs right here." Humphreys recounted: "I had pretty good teeth. A lot of the others had false teeth or something and couldn't do it. Some years I'd mark as high as 15,000 lambs." His record was 1,200 in one day (Humphreys 1984a: 46).

The short-line railroads permitted herders to drive their flocks or their lumbering wagon laden with sacks of wool directly to the warehouses at railheads in Heppner and Shaniko. A vivid account described wool shipments at Grade, a stopping point and particularly steep slope on The Dalles Military Road in Wheeler County:

In good weather there were often ten, twelve, or even twenty freighters camping along the road from the house far up past the blacksmith shop. It was a sight to remember to see the Grade at starting time, lined with freight teams pulling out toward The Dalles, loaded with huge sacks of wool. Not a few outfits had as many as three wagons and ten or twelve horses (McArthur 1974).

wool buyers
Fig. 47. Wool buyers at the Henry Heppner warehouse, Morrow County (OrHi 55,508).

The construction of The Dalles Scouring Mills, which operated from 1900 to 1920, was a further stimulus to the industry. This facility washed local wool prior to its export to weaving factories (Lomax 1950: 43-47).

The markets for wool from eastern Oregon were defined, in part, by the construction of woolen mills in the Willamette Valley and the extension in the 1880s of the Oregon Railroad & Navigation Company line along the south bank of the Columbia River. Ambitious investors erected a plant in 1867 for the Wasco Woolen Manufacturing Company to knit stockings, pants, shirts, skirts, blankets, and cassimeres. The facility endured repeated misfortunes: a washed-out reservoir, a boiler explosion, legal troubles, and a fire. It closed in 1869 (Lomax 1941: 287-296). In 1909 Charles P. Bishop and his sons purchased and expanded the Pendleton Woolen Mills for the manufacture of the famous Pendleton Indian blankets. The Bishops also had mills at Washougal and Vancouver, Washington, and Sellwood, Oregon. All these factories required wool and offered a potential market for the flocks of the upper John Day region (Carey 1922[2]: 503-504).

Statistical records chart the rise and fall of sheep production in the John Day watershed. The figures are incomplete — some agricultural census schedules did not enumerate all figures — but the overall trend for wool and sheep is clear, particularly the dramatic drops after 1930.

Table 4. Wool Production (lbs.), Grant and Wheeler Counties

187018901910 193019501979 1987
Grant County8,0001,140,779 -900,42748,356 -14,449
Wheeler CountyNANA -973,68997,311 -13,574

     (Bureau of the Census 1872, 1895, 1913, 1932, 1952, 1987)
     NA = Not Applicable (data not collected)

Table 5. Numbers of Sheep, Grant and Wheeler Counties

187018901910 193019501979 1987
Grant County1,154237,346 202,073120,4374,715 1,6002,065
Wheeler CountyNANA 165,446103,90918,009 6,4482,554

     (Bureau of the Census 1872, 1895, 1913, 1932, 1952, 1987)

The decline of sheep ranching in central Oregon had much to do with the influx of new homesteaders in the 1910s and 1920s. Many of these new settlers entered the sheep business, only to find they were unable to secure grazing allotments in the nearby national forests, and their production, along with that of older established ranches, diminished prices. These economic realities and the onset of the Great Depression in 1929 hastened the shift from sheep to back to cattle ranching (Humphreys 1984a: 2-3).

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Last Updated: 25-Apr-2002