In History Stories

Shepherd’s Fortune

By Kristine Kopperud and Alyson Smith

While some families kept small bands of sheep in the valley year-round, most of the winter feeding and lambing took place on the arid rangeland near St. Anthony. Photos courtesy of Vickie Jorgensen.

Keepers of the sheep counted their wealth in life’s simple

Before day break, as the sky turned pink and the smell of
dew-wet grass mingled with the rich aroma of unfiltered cowboy coffee, Lindsay
Hatch rolled out of his bunk. As a sheep-camp jack in the mountains of Teton
Valley in the early 1950s, he had to ensure that his uncle Sam Egbert, the
herder he accompanied, was ready to move as soon as the sheep were.

When the din of restlessness started bleating through the
band, Sam and his dogs would take off to quiet the chaos while Lindsay, an
18-year-old with nothing better to do, either broke down camp and got ready to
move on, or organized camp and indulged in his hobbies. These included anything
from braiding leather into bridles and belts, to whittling and wildflower
photography. Lindsay’s favorite pastime wasn’t quite so genteel, however. Most
days he would hop on his horse and ride through the mountains, looking for
chances to target practice on rock chuck.

Around 10 a.m.  Sam
and Lindsay would have a breakfast of hot cakes, eggs and bacon, prepared in
the scant cookware they carried, primarily a Dutch oven. The fresh meat and
eggs were a bit of a luxury. If those ran out before they met their resupply
wagon, they’d be back to the packable rations of corned beef and Spam, canned
milk and basics biscuits, and whatever small game they could hunt. When the
meal was over, each went on with the day’s work of moving the sheep through the

Though the job often required 16-hou days, Lindsay, a valley
native, recalls his time as camp jack with fondness. “It was all fun. I love
the outdoors. The great thing about that life is that you had your own
schedule. I had plenty of [time] to stop and pick a few berries and get a drink
of water from a nearby creek.” The only responsibilities demanding his
attention were cooking, setting up and taking down the cook tent, and moving
the sheep wagon.

Judy Jorgensen (age 10) grew up following sheep from the winter feed grounds to the summer range to market.

He got out of sheepherding a few years later, when he got
married. And since his stint, most sheep ranchers in the valley have given it
up too. Across the state, the industry’s viability has been waning since 1937,
says Stan Boyd, executive director of Idaho Wool Growers Association. Dick
Egbert, who at 96 still owns and manages bands of sheep on Teton Canyon grazing
allotments, estimates the valley could have hosted as many as 400,000 sheep at
one time. But today, statewide sheep counts tally only 250,000 head, according
to Boyd.

The shift correlates to the steady reduction of rangeland
and the influx of alternative job opportunities, particularly in recreation
hubs like Teton Valley. “The cost of raising sheep have changed. They don’t
trail’em anymore,” Lindsay says, for example. “They just haul’em.” Despite
obvious economic ramifications, traditional herders mourn more the loss of a
lifestyle than a livelihood, suggesting the rigors of the mountain range did
more to condition the human than the herd.

The ambitious camp jack could cook anything from huckleberry pie to mutton stew over a campfire.

“Sheep were everything,” says Vickie Jorgensen, whose
parents and grandparents herded about 9,000 sheep in the valley’s mountains. “I
would scamper out of my bed, pull on my dirt-crusty Levis and run out to ride
on the apple cart,” a wagon used to move lambs and ewes into lambing sheds in
early spring.

Her constant immersion in the working lifestyle earned the
animals’ trust. “Sheep rely so much on their senses, other than their eyesight,”
she explains, “so they’re really easy to spook. But I would run through them in
count them, or climb over them, and they didn’t think anything of it. I smelled
like them. “kind of a pungent, musky smell completely separate from the smell
of manure.”

Jackie Baler and other tough riders born into the herding lifestyle made themselves at home on the trail.

Historically, the children of herders apprenticed to the
trade. Though Vickie was never a sheepherder herself, her parents were born to
sheepherders and continued the tradition. Id didn’t pay a lot, but at a time
when domestic wool growers could compete with importers and lamb meat brought a
reliable income, herding provided the means to raise a family.

And the mountain pastures always offered something for a
child to busy herself with. “We’d trail the band and look for arrowheads in the
dust they’d stirred up,” Vickie says. “Or we’d look for cottontail rabbits to
keep as pets. There were always a zillion things to explore.” One of six
siblings, Vickie eagerly anticipated her turn to trail sheep in the high
pastures with her grandparents Melba and Mutt. “We got to go one at a time. One
kid was enough to keep track of,” she says, laughing.

Feeding the sheep with a horse drawn sleigh at the winter feed grounds.

The summer rangeland system was complicated. Several bands
of about 2,000 sheep spend four months, from late April to mid-September,
traveling what’s known as the sheep highway” and roaming the high pastures at
its end. This 100-foot-wide route, from the foothills southeast of Rexburg into
the Big Hole Mountains, acted as an artery connecting separate parcels of
grazing land. The bands staggered themselves, veering off the Forest Service-regulated
thoroughfare to browse in designated pastures every day or so. When they
reached Elk Creek and Indian Creek, above Palisades Lake, the bands spread out,
and the herders communicated their less-frequent moves through the packers who
brought supplies.

One of the main challenges of the sheepherder’s job was to
make sure the rangeland didn’t get overgrazed. “Sheep are kind of
brush-eaters,” Vickie explains, “but it’s not a free-for-all. If you’ve got a
good herder and good dogs—who are the real herders, by the way—overgrazing is
never a problem.”

The sheepherding tradition used to be passed down through family generations, but it’s becoming more common for seasonal herders to take on the rugged work. Juan came from Mexico. Photo by Alyson Smith.

Herders counted the animals by tally in the number of black
sheep, born at random even to Suffolk ewes, which have white bodies and black
faces. These genetic misfits were distributed in a one-to-100 ration in each
band, Vickie says. “If sheep break away during the night or during a move,
chances are you’ll lose a black, so when the herder goes to count blacks, he’ll
know he’s missing sheep.” Full moons especially meant little sleep and endless
counting for the herders, Vickie says. “If there’s light, sheep will move.”

Typically each band had a different owner. If two bands
somehow intermingled, traffic stalled along the highway or in the high pastures
for days. When this happened, a makeshift corral had to be packed in and the
sheep separated by brand. “That was a nightmare,” Vickie says. In most
situations, individual sheep exhibit distinguishable personalities, she
explains, but in the chaos of sorting, the animals really do behave, well, like
sheep. “They’re so funny, “ she adds. “If they get pushed too hard and get mad,
they’ll just lay down and mope until they die.”

Though nearly 80 years have passed since the Egberts used steel-wheeled camps while herding sheep on the summer range, the accommodations haven’t evolved much.

The sheepherder’s foremost duty was to contribute to the
profit of the sheep owner by keeping each animal alive, of course. “My father
always aimed for 100-plus lambs,” Vickie says. In other words, the 40-pound
lambs that went onto summer range weighed 100 to 125 pounds when they came off
the mountain to be sold. Predator prevention meant carrying a weapon to deter
bears, coyotes and mountain lions.

Jackie Baler, Vickie’s mother, explains that a predator
would sometimes spend quite a while just following a heard and waiting for the
right moment to attack. They were not so much a threat to the herder or the
jack as they were to those sheep trailing along at the back of the herd.

Containing little more than a bunk, cooking equipment and a few favorite books, the crowded camps encourage outdoor activity. Photo by Vickie Jorgensen.

Vickie’s father, Bud, worked as a government trapper and
responded to the complaints of herders, which came through the packers who
replenished supplies. “He’d set traps, mostly,” Vickie says. “To keep his scent
off, he word the same gloves always and burned his traps in a barrel of
sagebrush.” Though he regretted it in his later years, Bud also employed
cyanide stakes, Vickie says.

Rangeland rights have changed to reflect the growing number
of people who have conflicting interests in its use, Lindsay adds. Predators
posed a big problem in the ‘50s, and as he remembers, the law allowed the free
elimination of them. “Now if there’s a grizzly bear, they run the sheepmen off
the range,” he says.

Baby lambs were always fun for the children to handle in spring. Photo courtesy of Lindsay Hatch.

Beyond external threats, sheep as a species have certain
dietary needs, primarily salt, Vickie says. “One thing they always had to pack,
which was even more important than their own food sometimes, was salt.” Lindsay
says distribution of the mineral was something of a balancing act. “We’d put it
out in little piles, maybe five pounds a day, just enough so those that wanted
it could get at it, but not so much so we were leaving salt behind.”

Until two generations ago, many herders, like Lindsay, took
up the lifestyle by way of family tradition. But others, including a few Basque
and Mexican immigrants, just needed a job. According to Vickie and Lindsay, the
solitary herder’s life was sometimes hard on men who lived along year-round,
and their drinking in the winter could reach legendary, folklorish proportion.

Sheep bands, like this on in Teton Canyon, are still herded between grazing allotments, but most shepherds today move stock to the range in trucks. Photo by Alyson Smith.

Predictably, a number of herders would have to be dragged
out of the bar come early spring, Vicki says. Then they would suffer alcohol
withdrawal during the beginning of the trailing season. “Even my grandfather,
Mutt, had trouble going dry,” Vickie says. “My Grandma, Melba, would wake up on
the summer range, and Mutt and his mule would be gone—to the bars. Lots of
times the packers would find his mule just tied and grazing. Then they’d find
Mutt and get him rideable and bring him on back.”

Fortunately the digs the sheepherders and jacks kept didn’t
require much upkeep. The typical abode was a sheep wagon, made either of wood
or metal. One look at their wagon wheels and domed roofs and it’s obvious why
they evolved from the covered variety.

The true counting of sheep tookplace in teh spring, when fast hands like Bikey Egbert (right center) branded and vaccinated the animals. Photo by Greg Yaskot.

Most wagons came outfitted with a cast-iron Dutch oven, a
coffee pot, a frying pan, a pancake flipper, a big fork, a soup spoon, a few
pieces of silverware, some tin plates and cups, and a bed. After all, the
lifestyle encouraged little indoor activity but some cooking and sleeping.

All the way around, the encampment had a familiar worked-in
feel, Vickie says. “You could smell the Dial soap they washed their hands with,
the canvas, the oils, sweat, salt lanolin from the sheep. When it rained, you
smelled the fire smoke, wet wool. My favorite thing about the whole life was
the tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap of raindrops on the little canvas tepee tent
my Dad took into the high country.”

On the range, shepherd Bud Baler and his wife, Jackie, counted on their mules, Rufus and Babe , and their dogs, Missy, Buck and Pepper. Photo courtesy of Vickie Jorgensen.

Lindsay says thorough bathing was often an unknown luxury,
though they did bother to wash some of their clothes in the streams. Apparently
the herder and jack bathed before taking off to trail in the spring, and then
again after corralling the sheep in the fall.

A womanly touch domesticated the existence a little, Vickie
says, but that’s not to say the lifestyle didn’t tough them women. “There isn’t
a thing my mom can’t make in a Dutch oven,” Vickie boasts. “We’d have cakes and
fresh sourdough biscuits and pies with fresh red currents or thimbleberries.
She’d peel potatoes or cut meat with her pocketknife. And you should see her
skin a sheep with it, too. If she had time between lunch and dinner, she’d do
that kind of chore.”

On the summer range, herders tracked their band’s numbers by counting the black sheep, born randomly even to all-white ewes, then distributed throughout the herds.

But what herders did without, they made up for in gloriously
simplified living. When Lindsay looks back on what he learned in those years, a
certain wistfulness creeps plainly into his voice. “I always liked working with
the sheep, “ he says, admitting other farm responsibilities, like milking cows,
felt more like chores. Out on the summer range, he was keenly tuned to the
stars and wind, and he got to ride around aimlessly and shoot at anything—it
was OK them, with a fewer regulations and no one watching.

Vickie also cherishes that by-gone solitude, despite its
paltry selection of conveniences. “the best thing was never wondering what was
going to happen the next day,” she says. “We were so wealthy in the things we
gave to each other and shared with each other. There was a security in
knowing  every day was the same—rally a
constant life of adventure.”

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