Saturday, January 15, 2011

The untold story: Sheep ranching is a vintage tale of the Old West

Sheep were every bit as important as cattle in the history and development of the West. Yet their story is largely untold.

"No films romanticize the historic sheep drives," writes Nancy Weidel in a book called "Sheepwagon: Home on the Range." "No frontier photographer documented them, no books celebrate them. Nevertheless, millions of sheep made the same type of journey cattle did to reach the interior western United States."

The interior of this sheep wagon has been restored by Nancy Long and her assistants. Some historians believe the sheep-camp wagons drew their inspiration from gypsy wagons. Weidel speculates that the reason cowboys became famous while sheepherders were largely ignored is because "cowboys working cattle developed the rough-and-tough image that fit a mythological image of the American male character. Handling sheep involved a different, solitary way of life and a nurturing skill with animals."

Yet, she writes, the history of sheep ranching was a dramatic story. Nancy Long, a Utah businesswoman, antique collector and sheep aficionado, agrees. "Sheep were very important in Utah," she says. "Now, synthetics have replaced wool, and a lot of what wool there is comes from New Zealand. But there used to be thousands and thousands of sheep."

In Sanpete County in the 1920s, in fact, sheep were responsible for many a fortune; the county was said to have more millionaires per capita than anywhere else in the country. Long envisions a day when there will be a sheep history museum that will tell this story to younger generations.

"I don't know if I can get it done before I croak," the now 70-year-old woman said, laughing. But that doesn't stop her from trying — or from gathering up and restoring all the sheep-camp wagons she can find. She doesn't know exactly when she first fell in love with sheep wagons. It's not like her family was involved in the sheep business. "My grandfather in Massachusetts did raise dairy cattle, but that's the only family connection to anything with hooves."

She did, however, grow up a country girl. Her father was in the military and was transferred to Dugway, and he bought a place about 20 miles from school and work. "I walked the creek. I slept in a treehouse. I loved the country."

She grew up and married a Tooele man; she bought and developed Gardner Village, which she sold to her kids when she retired. Somewhere along the way, she fell in love with sheep wagons.

"I do remember going on a trip to England and seeing a gypsy wagon and being fascinated by it. It was so cleverly made."

Some historians think the idea of sheep wagons grew out of gypsy wagons; others compare them to cabins on a ship. Whatever their origin, they are marvels of space utilization and convenience, Long says. "The way they combine bedroom and kitchen — they were the first campers. I just found myself driving around and buying ones I saw. And I have the history of every one I've bought."

Most of them were built in Wyoming from the 1880s to the 1920s, she says. The interior of this sheep wagon has been restored by Nancy Long and her assistants. Some historians believe the sheep-camp wagons drew their inspiration from gypsy wagons. Long also started to interview the sheepherders she met and has a huge file of tapes and interviews filled with fascinating stories. "Did you know, that on average, one herder could care for as many as 1,200 sheep all by himself?"

Usually, it was a lonely job. But occasionally, a wife and children would also live in the camp wagon. "Some were decorated with lace curtains and other little touches of home."

She has stories of women spending their honeymoons in the wagons or of being in them when the wagons rolled down a hill and tipped over. She has stories of sheepherders fighting off wild animals and dealing with all kinds of weather. "I don't know why I love them so; I just do," she says.

Long has been collecting for about 15 years and has about 25 sheep wagons, which are in various stages of restoration. "My husband asks me why I can't just collect tea cups," she says, laughing. She bought the old museum in Riverton to have a place to restore them, but eventually, she wants to move them to a 600-acre ranch that she now owns in Clover, in Rush Valley. She thinks it would be fun to have a place where she could rent them out for family reunions, scout camps and other gatherings. They are very fun to sleep in, she says.

About half of them are in Clover now. She also has collected enamel ware, lanterns and other equipment and artifacts so people can get a good idea of how the wagons worked. She has named each one: Grasshopper, Black Bart, Cranberry, Full Moon. The project has kept her going since she retired, she says. "I pictured myself turning into the old lady on the Carol Burnett show, so I knew I had to stay busy."

Long was also diagnosed with muscular dystrophy, which threw her for a bit of a loop at first, she says. "The first week, I cried every day. Then I cried once a week. Then I cried once a month, then once a quarter, then once a year. Now, I don't cry at all. There are so many other things I could get, I realize I'm pretty fortunate. What else can you do but deal with it?"

It means that she can't do as much of the work on restoring the wagons as she would like, but she has hired a crew of workers. Her specialty is the wheels. "When you take off all the rotted wood, there's usually beautiful oak underneath. I can come and sit and spin the wheel around as I brush them with linseed oil."

Each wheel takes a lot of work and several months to restore. Some of the sheep wagons were later put on a chassis of iron with rubber wheels. But she wants the authentic wooden wheels. "We hoist them up on straps and then set them on the wheel base."

They try to get them as authentic as possible, says Bryan Booth, who has worked with Long on the project for the past couple of years.

"I met Nancy two years ago. She took me out to the ranch. It's so beautiful out there, it feeds your spirit. I asked her if I could be a part of this."

Booth does have a family connection to sheepherding. "My grandfather lived in one of these camps in the Bear Lake area."

You look at the wagons and "think of all the lonely nights spent in them," he says. "You can really feel their spirit."

It's a spirit of determination, of strength, of dealing with hardship and coping with life. And it's a spirit that, if Long has her way, will not be forgotten.


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