I don’t really know why the subject came up but it did. I was with my dad, Brother Ben and hired hand Web working out behind the big barn up on the hill behind our house one afternoon. I might have been maybe eight years old and we had stopped for a break. That was when dad began to tell of a time that had passed. He leaned against the fence and with a glass of water in his hand and a smoke in the other one he looked off into the distance and said you know fellas we did have a good size herd back in those days. The first thought that came to my mind was a herd of cattle or hogs.
With his next sentence I found out just how wrong I really was.Dad said you know we used this barn lot and this stall for the sheep. I snapped my head to an attention in his direction with the thought and question of (SHEEP!) This was the very first I had ever heard of sheep being raised on our farm. Dad went on to tell us that most years he would raise over a hundred sheep in a year. He cared for that many because in the late 1930’s and most of the 40’s they were a product that delivered him a good return on his investment. That was until the spittal bug invaded our pastures. A spittal bug would leave its nasty spittal on the red clover plants that sheep dearly loved and would cause a sheep to bloat and die. In those days insecticides had yet to be invented to rid the farmer of the bug. So the only way dad could survive was to ship his sheep to market and go out of the business of being a shepherd.
Now after hearing his story I was of course surprised he had been such a large shepherd and that a bug could and in his case did ruin him. It also peaked my curiosity about raising sheep. So it wasn’t very long after his tale that I got the nerve up to talk to him about sheep. He actually seemed pleased that I asked and he was very knowledgeable about the subject. I of course wasn’t long in asking him if they ever invented a spray to rid the spittle bug from the pastures. He smiled very much and said oh yes they did and got rid of them in short order. That was all I needed for me to ask the next question.
Dad was sitting beside me so I got up and walked around until I was looking him straight in the eyes. “Do you think you and I could buy a few sheep so I can learn how to raise them? Dad drew a blank expression and gave me a sincere look into my eyes. I think he wanted to be sure I was not just asking just to have something to do. You know some little boys will do that sometimes. Not me though. He grinned and said lets sleep on it and talk about it over breakfast? I agreed with him immediately. I figured if he wanted to sleep on it the deal was looking in a good way for me!
Next morning I got to the table earlier than usual and sat down and looked at dad. As he was sipping on his cup of coffee he said I thought on it and how about tonight we drive down to Bill Blankenships and see if he has any good stock that would make for good ewes? If they look good and Bill don’t over price us we might buy them. What do you think? Now since the only thing I really knew about a sheep at that moment was that they grew wool and went baa. But I tried my best bluff and looked at my father and said I think you have a very good plan. Besides we don’t want to get took on them my first time buying. I to this day feel my dad was laughing at that line on the inside.
That evening we went to Bill Blankenships and looked his stock over. When we got to the field with the ewes in it dad told me to walk among them and see what I thought. To my benefit was that Bill Blankenship was a very honest and fair man. He also raised quality stock and he and my dad were very good friends. I kind of knew this but thought he liked me better than my dad, but everybody seemed to like my dad. We bought fourteen ewes at 12.00 each for a total of 168.00. I recall this number as dad had me bring my checkbook and I had to write the check for the ewes. It was only fair as he was supplying the pasture, ground corm and was hauling them in his truck. (Everything was to be 50/50.)
We unloaded them in the field across the road from our house. That was so we could keep an eye on them for a little while in case they were to get lose. Those sheep were the easiest animal to keep on the farm that I can remember. They went to pasture at daylight and came to the feeding trough around five and then return to pasture until dark. I had always been told that sheep aren’t the smartest animal as they would follow the first sheep to walk away from the others. This was so very true and they would walk in a straight line with one sheep following another this could be seen all day every day. I don’t know if they weren’t smart but just well organized.
In the spring and fall the sheep were to be sheered. Jim Johnston would come out and sheer them for a reasonable price. I thought it interesting that with Jims’ talents he would sheer a sheep and if it all went correct all the wool would be in one bundle and that would make it so much easier to tie up and handle as you took it to the mill. With the number of sheep we had and the amount of wool we had it would create a rounded load for our pickup truck. We then would take the wool to the woolen mill in New Richmond and in those years we got about .14 cents a pound. Approximately 36.00 for half of a year…
The part I really liked was the lambing season. Approximately February through March. We had a small barn and a small stall just right for a lambing pin. During that time of year I would check my sheep twice dailey and sometimes I got payed twice also. The very rewarding part was they had multiple births. The only thing that I enjoyed more was the rare birth of a black sheep. I had always heard of them but when I saw my first one I about went crazy, the big thing about sheep and this is lambs especially are just how lovable they can be. From the soft wool to the soft muzzle and as they snuggle you, you get serenaded with a gentle bleating.
Sadly in the years I raised them the price in the sheep market was very weak. I had to make a decision and the weak market made it for me. The memory of having raised them will always be with me.
Rick Houser grew up on a farm near Moscow in Clermont County and loves to share stories about his youth and other topics. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.