Taken from America's Sheep Trails by Edward Norris Wentworth 06/23/2004
For more than two centuries the eastern section of the country washed sheep before shearing. The custom was based on the need for clean wool in the home woolen industries. The fiber could not be combed and spun neatly if too much grease remained. Chemicals were unavailable, and the caustics made from wood ashes, for example did not dissolve the grease except at temperatures that injured the texture of the wool fiber.
Both brook and pond washing were practiced. The water in the ponds warmed about two weeks earlier in the spring than brook water. In Tennessee pond washing began in early April, and in Kentucky and Virginia, in mid-April. In Missouri, southern Illinois, Indiana, southern Ohio and West Virginia it began the first of May, and in Pennsylvania, New York, middle and northern Ohio, southern Michigan and Wisconsin and northern Illinois, in mid-May. Brook washing was one or two weeks late, according to the season.
Flock owners would watch the barometer for rising clearing weather and would put the sheep into the water at the beginning of the period, so as to have steady sunshine while the sheep would dry. River washing was more convenient as it bore away the dirt and grease. An especially satisfactory arrangement was made along a clean gravely beach with a slight slope on which the sheep could be landed. At such a point three sides of a pen were built fronting openly on the water and then a duplicate was built adjoining. The flock would be driven into one, the sheep drawn into the water to be dipped so as to soak up the fleece, and then passed into the second pen where the men would proceed at once with the washing. Sometimes a second flock was driven outside of the remaining pen, dipped, and then placed in the pen so that it could soak longer before the washing commenced.
The washing process itself consisted of swinging the sheep to and fro through the water, after going out just deep enough to float the sheep. When finished they were carried near the shore to expose all the fleece. The men would squeeze out the water between their forearms, drawing the fleeces back lengthwise along the body. A stony beach was preferable to keep away from dust, after which the washed animals were placed on a clean sod pasture to dry. When well organized the average rate of washing permitted four men, with one or two boys to drive the sheep, to wash about 750 sheep a day, take up the fence and return to headquarters.
Following washing it was important to protect the sheep against cold rains. In good weather washing resulted in a slight loss of flesh but rarely produced fatalities. Sometime there were deaths if the weather turned too hot, but they were rare. Occasionally digestive difficulties developed. The sheep would come back hungry from the washing, and often would gorge on some green feed that caused bloating. Rarely heavy milking ewes would develop inflammation of the udder if too long separated from their lambs. The shock of washing nearly always checked the ewe’s milk flow for a time and sometimes stunted the lambs.
Several other penalties were paid for washing. If sheep could be shorn before turning on spring pasture, the stimulus of the new grass gave them an excellent start on next year’s fleece. This advantage could not be obtained when they were washed as the fresh grass appeared before the weather was warm enough to dry the fleece. The sheep were not the only sufferers. The sheep washers would catch cold and it was remarked the whether taken before or after washing “whiskey did not help much”.
Offsetting these disadvantages were three advantages. The washing directly benefited the fleece, the fleece was easier to shear and tie, and the “rule of thumb” favoring washed fleeces in price was distinctly profitable. An ethical question was involved in the time allowed to elapse between washing and shearing. When the washing was done thoroughly, less yore remained in the fleece then was needed to give it elasticity, luster, and good style. If the period was too short the farmer suffered and if the period was too long the buyer had to penalize the seller for too much shrink. The ideal was to leave the sheep in the sunshine until sufficient yolk had been produced to provide the degree of luster and softness found in a normal head of hair. When the sun was hot, ten days were sufficient but when the weather was cool and cloudy, two weeks often proved necessary.
As settlers poured into the Ohio and Mississippi valleys, the sheep farmers took with them the custom of washing before shearing. New Englanders and New Yorkers carried it as far as Illinois and Wisconsin, and found it practices in Missouri by families that had come across Kentucky from Virginia. When the various eastern “colonies” migrated to Kansas and Colorado throughout the late fifties and sixties, the washing customs were carried to those territories. Typical operators from all these states transferred the procedure to Oregon and California where it was used quite regularly before the Civil War. As the flocks changed from a farm to a range basis, washing was gradually abandoned.
The practice of washing sheep prior to shearing was continued long after it was necessary, because wool buyers would deduct one-third of the price per pound of washed fleeces when washing unwashed fleeces. Shipmen long complained of the unfairness of the practice, for the deduction seemed too great proportionately, even after the merinos with their heavy yolk came to dominate the wool market.
The Spanish sheep husbandry of the Southwest never included washing before shearing, due to absence of facilities. Water was too scarce and far between, and the numbers of sheep were too great in relation to the number of men employed. Extremes of temperature between day and night were also too great when the night winds could strike the wet sheep on upland bed-grounds. Probably the last washing in the range states occurred in the late seventies, when it was stilled practiced in isolated spots in Colorado and Wyoming. Washing was an essential phase of sheep operations only as long as the spinning and weaving were home industries. When they became commercial, or when local scouring mills were established, the need for washing ceased.