Western history brought to life


The roots of Moffat County are rich with sheep lore, tales of ugly range wars, and the romance of rambling sheep wagons. Craig will once again revive this piece of the region's culture with the second annual Sheep Wagon Days, through Saturday.

The event is a joint project of Colorado Northwestern Community College (CNCC) and the Museum of Northwest Colorado.

"Sheep have been a major influence in the history and heritage of Moffat County," said museum employee Jan Gerber, one of the event coordinators. "The idea for this event came last year when Sureva Towler of Steamboat Springs called the museum asking if she could put her sheep wagon on display. We thought it would be an excellent way to educate people about the rich and wonderful heritage of the sheep industry in Craig and Moffat county."

Towler's refurbished sheep wagon, "Ewe Haul," will be on display in downtown Craig this week, along with other sheep wagons belonging to local ranchers. The Ewe Haul's restoration was made possible by grants from the Colorado Endowment for the Humanities and the Colorado Woolgrowers Association. The wagon has become a nostalgic symbol of the once flourishing sheep industry in these parts. Both the wagons and the industry are becoming an endangered species.

Craig was once considered the wool center of the country. During the 60s, more than three million pounds of Moffat County wool got clipped annually and Craig was the largest rail shipping point for wool in the U.S.

Several locals - such as the Visintainer Sheep Co. and the Kourlis Ranch -produced such high grade wool it was regularly purchased by Pendleton, the woolen factory well-known for its exacting standards and high-quality Western blankets. According to Gerber, some Moffat County ranchers still sell their wool to Pendleton.

Large bands of sheep once grazed on sagebrush in the area, often moving hundreds of miles in their yearly feeding cycle. A sheepherder and his family followed their flock from the winter range of the lower elevations to the summer range in the mountains. The sheep wagon became the perfect home for the herder on-the-move 11 feet long and six and a half feet wide, enclosed by a canvas top, with a stove for heat and cooking, a bed for sleeping, and a team of horses to keep it mobile.

Old-timers tell of seeing a sheep wagon on every hill on the winter range. As many as 30 wagons often gathered at the foot of the summer mountain range, herders waiting their turn on the sheep trail. Cattle were here first, so naturally the cattlemen didn't cotton to the

introduction of sheep into their open range lands. Several ugly incidents happened in Moffat County in the early l900s, including the murder of a sheepherder and more than 600 of his flock. Over the years, sheep ranchers fenced the land and left their sheep without a herder. Then the pick-up truck all but replaced horses.

"It's quite a different industry to be in right now," Gerber said. The sheep industry has slowly declined over the last 30 years, and although there are still a few diehards out on the range, sheep wagons are fast becoming a cultural artifact.

The enthusiastic Towler will be on hand during Craig's Sheep Wagon Days, to talk about life in a sheep wagon. Children gain invaluable insight into the way life used to be when they can see and touch an authentic wagon such as the "Ewe Haul." Rox Garcia, Craig resident and daughter of the legendary attorney Ferry Carpenter, remembers living in a wagon as a young woman. On Friday, she'll share memories of her colorful adventures.

Spinning wool goes hand-in-hand with sheep raising. "People used to have drop spindles in their houses like they have TV's today," Mary Carrera said. She worked and lived in an 1850's cabin at Murphy's Landing Living History Museum in Shakopee, Minn. from 1990 to 1997, teaching people about pioneer living. "A lot of people today don't realize how hard life used to be. You raised critters to feed you, clothe you - you treated your animals like gold because they kept you alive."

Carrera now raises llamas in Moffat County the long-necked, wooly animals are known for chasing coyotes off, so are used to help protect sheep herds from the predators.

According to Carrera, children started spinning wool at age five. "Boys, too! The whole family was involved in shearing the sheep, carding and cleaning the wool, then they'd spin it, dye it or stretch-dry the twist, then weave it, knit or crochet their blankets and winter coats," Carrera said. She'll be demonstrating wool spinning throughout the week.

Nancy Weidel's slide presentation on Wednesday afternoon will explore the 110-year history of the sheep wagon in Wyoming, including its importance in traditional and recent uses. Author of the book, "The Western Sheepwagon" and an historian with the Wyoming State Preservation Office, Weidel coordinates 18 historic preservation groups in Wyoming and has worked on a variety of western history architecture projects.

A Delightfully Sheepish Community Reception will be hosted by the Museum of Northwest Colorado on Friday, 5 to 7 p.m., followed by fun for the whole family a Little Bo Peep Look Alike contest, wagon rides, artwork featuring sheepish subjects, a petting zoo, a community quilting frame, wool spinning and western braiding demonstrations, and music by Cedar Mountain Strings.

On Saturday the day begins at 10 a.m. with the nostalgic sounds of Dr. Rowan McQuarrie's heart-stirring bag pipes, followed by a Community Lamb Stew at noon, hosted by the Historic Craig Downtown Business Association.

"With the help of the museum and the college, we have put together an educational event that is heritage-based, and one that is truly exciting for this area," said Mary Morris of CNCC, Sheep Wagon Days event coordinator.

For more information call Morris at 824-1135 or Gerber at 824-6360.

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