Early Iron County Sheep Stories

In going along with recent posts, we thought we would share some interesting tales taken  from the 1940’s radio addresses of William R. Palmer. The following excerpts were compiled  from a 1974 Utah Historical Quarterly article. If you want to read the entire article, it can be found here: Utah Historical Quarterly Spring 1972 Spelling and pronunciation have been left as Palmer intended. Enjoy.

Most of our early pioneers came from the shops and factories of foreign lands. The Americans among them were but little better prepared for pioneering. All of them knew little or nothing about sheep, and no one was available to advise them of the range conditions that their animals must face. So, in trying to build up their cherished flocks and herds, they did many things that seem humorous to the experienced growers of today.

Sheep on the summer range.

Sheep on the summer range.

Sheep were first brought to the Cedar City area in November 1862 by the Willden family, who later moved to Beaver. They had ten head. As fast as others could get hold of them, every family acquired one or more to produce the wool that was needed to spin the family clothing. They were valued as high as thirty dollars a head. To avoid loss they were kept in a pen at home and fed by hand like pigs.

As the years went by, the sheep increased until the families were supplied with the wool they needed. The animals by now were becoming troublesome to care for, and ways were sought to get them away from home where they could pick their own living. At first they were driven out in the morning and brought back at night. Then neighbors put their flocks together and took turns in herding them. Finally a community herd developed and they were brought home only once a year to be shorn.

Sheep in their pens.

Sheep in their pens.

To breed up the quality of their sheep, the company brought in a few head of purebred merinos. They were run on the best ranges and given every advantage that they might increase more rapidly. Everyone thought they were wonderful sheep until shearing time came. The natives had light, fluffy fleeces and sheared only three or four pounds each. Shearers were paid five cents per head and with the crude appointments they had, men sheared only from fifty to seventy head per day. The merinos were wrinkly bodied, tight, greasy-wooled fellows that almost defied the shear blades. The coming in of the merino herd was always occasion for groans and profanity on the part of the crew.

Early shearers.

Early shearers.

It was the manager’s custom to call the men together for prayers every night and morning. And always a blessing was invoked upon “our flocks and herds.” There was a newcomer from England in the crew one spring, and he could not get the knack of using the shears. He snipped and snipped all day. If he was lucky enough to get a good run of bare-bellied natives he sometimes got up to fifteen or twenty head in a hard day. When the merinos came in his count dropped to a third of that number. After wrestling with the merinos one hard, hot day the manager called upon Dick to lead in prayer. He made a good and fervent start but when he came to the blessing of the flocks and herds he truly told the Lord how he felt about the matter. He said, “Lord bless all our flocks and ‘erds, but this ‘ere bloody, greasy ‘erd we don’t care whether Thee blesses urn or not.” It was a long time before proper reverence and decorum could be restored at prayer time.

In those days the housewives carded and spun the wool, and wove the cloth and knitted the stockings for the needs of their families. So the first market to be supplied was the townspeople. The sheep company declared a wool dividend every year, and the women brought their sacks to the Tithing Office to receive it. The women came generally because they knew wool better than the men, and they wanted to select their own for they would have to work it up. If the family needed more than twenty, thirty, or fifty pounds of dividend wool that was theirs, or if they were not stockholders, they bought it from the company or from a shareholder who had more wool than he needed. After the town was supplied, the balance was sacked up and hauled to Provo or Salt Lake and traded to ZCMI for groceries and hardware. These goods were brought home to Cedar City and sold over the counters of the Co-op Store. ZCMI found a market for most of that wool among the women of Salt Lake City who still were carding and spinning and weaving their own cloth.

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