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[graphic]  Southwestern Range and Sheep Breeding Laboratory Historic District

Laboratory-Office looking south from parking lot
Photo by Tom Hobart, courtesy of New Mexico Office of Cultural Affairs Historic Preservation Division
The Southwestern Range and Sheep Breeding Laboratory Historic District, in McKinley County, New Mexico, comprises a well-preserved cultural landscape, with an intact complex of buildings and a number of water management and Navajo habitation resources, that reflect the philosophy and social intent of this New Deal program to improve sheep breeding and wool production, and to address the problems of overgrazing on Navajo land. The Southwestern Range and Sheep Breeding Laboratory was a joint venture between the Bureau of Animal Husbandry (BUAH) and the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) of the Department of the Interior. During the New Deal, Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner John Collier instituted an administrative policy of self-determination and preservation of Navajo culture that resulted in the development of day schools, land reclamation, and political institutions. In the Sheep Lab program, Collier and Department of Agriculture (later Vice President) Secretary Henry A. Wallace sought to improve Navajo rug and blanket weaving as the Navajo market economy that had developed since the early 1900s in Arizona and New Mexico was dependent on wool, lambs, and rugs. Due to a severe winter in 1931-1932, much of the Navajo livestock starved and that increased crossing of the Navajo churro sheep with other breeds, begun in the late 1800s, had produced a short staple wool that was too kinky and oily to wash, card, and spin by the hand methods used by Navajo weavers.

Lab employee sharpening shears
Photo courtesy of New Mexico Office of Cultural Affairs Historic Preservation Division

The first director of the fledging Sheep Lab, James M. Cooper, who served in that capacity from 1935 to 1942, saw that the foundation flock of the churro breeding sheep were established and that the initial breeding experiments with other sheep breeds were conducted. From its inception through the late 1940s, the Lab employed from one to two Navajo women weavers to weave sample rugs of the various grades of wool produced by the experimental flocks. The year 1942 marked a change in emphasis for the program. While the breeding programs were maintained, attention was focused on the formation of improved range management practices and Navajo education. Some of the Navajo workers associated with the Sheep Lab included Calvin Gleason, one of the famous “code Talkers” in WWII, and Fred Deschene, a sheepherder at the lab who was a Navajo Medicine Man. Although the lab closed in 1962, range management practices devised by the SCS component of the Lab partnership are still used on the Navajo Reservation today. The Southwestern Range and Sheep Breeding Laboratory Historic District is a complex of 14 Pueblo Revival style buildings and additional structures and sites, and was listed in the National Register of Historic Places on May 30, 2003.

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