Sheep at Hopewell

Sheep and lambs standing in the barnyard

Few attractions at Hopewell's farm draw as much attention as the flock of Merino sheep. Their gentle bleating and peaceful grazing stand in contrast to the industrial rumble and groan that we are told existed when the furnace was in blast. The birthing of lambs and the shearing of the flock in the spring seem firmly set in an organic, agricultural existence and not in the production oriented iron casting furnace.

In the nineteenth century there were few articles of clothing that could not be made from wool. Outer wear, underwear and rain wear all had some wool representatives. Obviously, different uses called for different kinds of wool. Coarse or medium wool was fine for heavy coats, winter trousers, and socks; but when lightness was called for, nothing beat the fineness of Merino wool.

The Merino breed are the royalty of wool sheep. With a fiber count of about forty thousand per square inch of skin, no wool can be spun as fine and light. In the period of 1810-1816 this wonderful reputation was perhaps over recognized as the value of both animal and wool soared during what agricultural historians have called the "Merino craze."

Hopewell managers had not only a furnace to run, but a considerable amount of furnace property to farm as well. Company records indicate that this farming operation was run just as efficiently as the furnace was.

On April 21, 1818, an entry in the furnace financial ledger states: "Sundries D[ebit] to Furnace....Bernard Hart....1 Marino Ram 3.00 (per hundred weight) 6.05"

In other words the furnace company sold to Bernard Hart a Merino ram at a rate of $3.00 per 100 pounds of its weight for a total of amount $6.05. This business notation leaves us with a few clues and questions as to the history of Merinos at Hopewell Furnace.

Just over six dollars does not appear to be a princely sum for the king of sheep. During the "Merino craze" of the 1810s a ram could sell for hundreds of dollars. But the boom soon came to bust and by the end of the craze those same rams sold for about the same amount as Hopewell's did.

It appears that this ram weighed just over two hundred pounds. Given what we know of sheep growth and longevity, the ram probably was born during the "Merino craze".

Was this ram part of a Hopewell Merino flock? This may have been, but we know that by 1838 only twenty full blooded Merinos existed in all of Berks County, Pennsylvania.

We will probably never know exactly what kind of sheep operation was going on at Hopewell. But what we know of common farm practices of the age might bring us closer to the truth. A common practice at that time was to use Merinos to "improve" sheep flocks. A Merino ram would be bred to ewes with coarse wool in the hope that the resulting lambs would have finer, higher quality wool. Such may have been the case here at Hopewell. The ram that Mr. Hart bought may have spent the "Merino craze" years at Hopewell making the furnace sheep a more desirable product and was then sold to Hart at a deep discount for the same purpose.

Sheep at Hopewell were probably not purebred, but mixed breed animals with good wool and meat. Historians speculate that the 1817 store records showing the company store selling plenty of mutton but buying no sheep, prove that these sales were of home grown animals. Plenty of carding, spinning and weaving around this time period indicate that Hopewell's sheep were valued for more than chops and roasts.

We presently keep a flock of mixed breed sheep, including some American Delaine Merinos. Since the 1990s these Merinos have been crossed with Border Leicester and Hog Island breed rams. These sheep represent a deep heritage of agriculture in America and at Hopewell Furnace.

Last updated: February 26, 2015

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