Some Craig elementary school students couldn't get enough of the lamb samples Thursday at the Sheep Wagon Days celebration in Alice Pleasant Park. That some had never tasted the delicacy before may be one indication of the decline of sheep ranching in Northwest Colorado.
In the early 1900s and well through the middle part of the century, sheep ranching dominated the northwest corner of the state as ranchers collectively ran about 100,000 head, estimated sheep rancher Albert Villard. Today, the county's sheep number about one- third of that, he said.
"It's a lot of work," said Villard, who with some members of his family were on hand Thursday to talk about their ranching traditions.
During the sixth annual event that wraps up Saturday, area ranchers fill the downtown park with sheep wagons. School children are offered tours through the small movable structures and given educational lectures. Food is available on site and ranchers bring in animals for children to pet, such as miniature horses, llamas and goats.
Sheep wagons largely represent a way of life for sheepherders who would "trail" animals in the high county for grazing in the summer and lead the animals back down to lower ground in the winter. The compact horse-drawn trailers could house whole families. Some were equipped with cast-iron wood stoves, beds and tables, and the trailors had places to store goods under every available surface.
Although sheep ranching has subsided in Northwest Colorado because of grazing restrictions on public lands and the increased costs of farming operations, herders still use wagons to live in during the weeks-long treks.
Mary-Morris Shearer, who offered school children a history of the wagons Thursday, said the tradition has not gone extinct in Northwest Colorado.
"I couldn't say how many herders there are, but there are more than you think."
Shearer said her interest in the local tradition of sheep ranching prompted her to get a wagon, which she had on display during the festival.
It's the way of life that requires solitude and "not being soft" that she admires.
"We may not be a pretty community, but we're real," Shearer said. "Sheep ranching represents survival and the authenticity of what we're about. There's nothing 'Made in China' about it."
Nikora Myers, who was a vendor serving lamb at the festival, is a living example of the hardships of sheep ranching.
A former sheep rancher, Myers said the family had to shut down the operation last summer because of drought and lack of grazing options.
Now, Myers, who operates a food stand selling hot dogs and sausages, said ranchers have to find a niche market to survive. For the past two years, the family has been selling lambs to restaurants on Colorado's eastern slope.
"Maybe if you can find a niche you might be able to make it," she said.
"We used to be one of the largest sheep ranching centers in the world. Now ranchers have to diversify and find other ways to supplement their income," Shearer said.