Once a year, the sheepmen — white-haired, crinkly-eyed, some using walkers — pack into a cafe to share stories of herding bull-headed sheep amid furious snowstorms here in Nevada's Snake Valley, a forlorn patch of desert on the border with Utah. In the mythology of the American West, the sheepherder may be outshone by gunslingers and prospectors. But not when the sheepmen get together. Not tonight.
Gusts rattled the walls of the Border Inn, much as they once pounded their desolate sheep camps, trailers so thinly insulated that the men sometimes awoke to a cupboard full of frozen eggs.
The open-mike program is the highlight of the annual Old Sheepherders' Party, a two-day affair whose name reflects what's happened with this once-robust way of life. Herds have shrunk dramatically in recent decades, with more young people turning away from the business of their great-great-grandfathers.
"There are no young sheepherders," said Denys Koyle, the Border Inn's owner, who started the event nine years ago. Later, Koyle shared a tribute she felt would resonate with the folks who propped up her pit stop during the winter doldrums. Lee Jarvis recalled a night of odd twists after a ram sale.
And Lois Anderson, well, she stole the show. Her story was about horse manure. And frozen diapers.
Up to a tiny stage stepped sheep breeder Jarvis, a vestige of an era when a herd was viewed as a cash machine.
Jarvis, 79, grew up in Spanish Fork, Utah, with dreams of running his own sheep ranch. Wool had enriched many locals, with nearby Fountain Green considered one of the country's wealthiest communities at the turn of the century — a point of pride shared repeatedly during the Old Sheepherders' weekend.
In the ninth grade, Jarvis purchased three ewes for $25 each as part of a Future Farmers of America project. (That equates to about $290 today.) Over time, he expanded his herd and married his high school sweetheart, Joan, a onetime rodeo queen. They had six children in seven years. "We were raising all those kids and all those sheep," said Jarvis, who also worked at a mill.
He eventually oversaw hundreds of purebred Columbia and Suffolk ewes on land he snatched up in Utah and Idaho, sparing him from winters in a sheep camp. But during the decades it took to achieve his childhood goal, the sheep business withered.
Since 1942, the number of sheep roaming the U.S. has plummeted from 56 million to about 5 million. Blame international competition, a shift to making clothes with synthetic fibers and the kind of hardship — low pay, long bouts of isolation — that nudges Americans into other lines of work. In a recent survey by the American Sheep Industry Assn., only 35% of sheep producers said their kin planned to take over when they retired. These days most herders are South American immigrants working on temporary visas.
Jarvis works alongside one of his sons. But his grandchildren — all 21 of them — passed on joining the family business.
And so, Old Sheepherders' weekend may have felt a little bittersweet for Jarvis and the others. About 160 people showed up the first day and 88 the second, most far past retirement age.
Onstage, Jarvis recalled leaving a ram sale in a snowstorm, discovering a stalled Volkswagen, hitching it to his truck with the only thing available — a seat belt — and hauling it to the nearest town. Few other audiences would have laughed so riotously. But the story touched on two of the crowd's favorite themes: the kindness of rural folk and rotten weather.
Koyle, the Border Inn owner, took a more somber tone. She read a tribute shared at a recent sheepman's funeral, which spoke of the profession in paternal terms:
Dad was a shepherd. … His seasons of life revolved around the growth and nurturing of animals.
Frosty mornings were spent bottle-feeding baby lambs and nights were characterized by sheltering new calves from winter storms.
Dad's summer involved shearing and ramming … nurturing the sick and seeking the lost.
The sheepmen lowered their eyes and wrung their hands, clearly moved.
In many ways, Koyle understands the sheepherders — particularly the reluctant ones. In 1977, Koyle and her husband moved here from sun-kissed Huntington Beach to renovate a wind-battered building with two gas pumps, two slot machines and an eight-stool bar. It was his idea.
When the marriage crumbled, Koyle and her two children got stuck near Baker — population 68 — running the Border Inn. "I probably would have sold it in a minute if someone wanted to buy it," she said. Instead, she added the cafe and 29 motel rooms, preserving one of the few roadside stops amid the chiseled peaks and yellow scrub near Great Basin National Park, about 300 miles north of Las Vegas.
The sheepherders helped shape her business. She stocked work gloves in the motel store, and she fried chicken in the kitchen. (Herders get sick of eating lamb.) She installed a shower in the men's room. The herders get paid sporadically, so she sometimes served as their bank.
Over the years, she noticed their numbers dwindling. Their prominence waned as well. When Koyle was a girl in Delta, Utah, winter was marked by trucks ferrying sheep to Snake Valley and other parts of the "west desert," where furious gusts scattered the snow enough for sheep to graze. Now children here rarely stumble across sheep camps or find wandering ewes on their doorsteps.
One day, Koyle asked a sheepman, "If I had a party for the herders, will they come?" He said yes, and donated a lamb for dinner. At the first Old Sheepherders' Party, nearly 100 people showed up. Most were from Utah, Scandinavians and Mormons whose sheep wintered here.
At the second party, the men offered her photos of sheep camps and shearing stations, which she hung in the cafe. She also added the open-mike program. "Nobody ever threw a party for the sheepherders before," Koyle said, "and these guys led a life nobody knows about."
In recent years, Koyle's friend Dave Tilford started bringing his video camera. He's recorded about 50 interviews, and he and Koyle are in talks to donate them to the University of Utah's oral history archive. "They took a back seat to the cowboys," Tilford said. "Their life wasn't as glamorous. But they have stories to tell."
Anderson, 57, looking the part of a suburban housewife with her close-cropped hair and pink turtleneck, started regaling the room with tales of raising babies in a sheep camp. Anderson's husband, Corey, 59, is a fifth-generation sheep rancher. For years, his wife and their growing brood of children tagged along during the winter months.
While Corey oversaw the flock on horseback, she ran their household-on-wheels: stoking the fire, flipping sourdough pancakes, chasing after the kids. The cold was so bone-chilling that, if they stayed still long enough, their shoes sometimes froze to the floor.
Once, early in their marriage, the family zoomed away from the sheep camp in advance of a snowstorm. But their truck stalled. Corey hopped out to find help, stranding a pregnant Lois and their 1-year-old daughter, who were rescued by some locals.
None of the couple's seven children — five boys, two girls — ended up in the sheep business, and Lois understands why. "It's a real hard life for a family," she said.
On this night, Lois shared a story about cloth diapers. She stored the soiled ones in a pail, which reeked of ammonia. On laundry day, Corey usually found an excuse to ride far away from camp. So Lois chopped some wood, sparked a fire, punched through ice to siphon water from a tank. Then she boiled the water, washed the diapers, hung them on a clothesline — where they usually froze — and returned to the trailer to tackle another load.
"Then I hear a commotion outside," she said. The audience was rapt. "And I run outside to check. And guess what? The horses got tangled up in the clothesline and the diapers were laying in the manure."
She paused. "I just remember crying."
The audience responded: more laughter, more applause. And more than a few knowing smiles.