Fiber industry far from sheepish

Craig has long, rich history in wool production; local warehouse still active

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The aging warehouse next to the railroad tracks on Ranney Street is quiet now, with the building's lone worker sitting at a desk. Tom LeFevre checks current wool prices and reflects on the history of the industry in which he works.

"(Craig Wool Warehouse) was once the biggest shipping point for wool in the United States," LeFevre said. "I was 16 when I brought my first load of wool down here."

At that time, big burlap bags of wool were piled next to the railroad tracks for nearly 400 yards, LeFevre said. He was the employee selected to bring in the wool from the Two-Bar Ranch in Browns Park because he had a driver's license.

"You just backed up to the right pile and rolled it off," said the 78-year-old LeFevre.

When the warehouse was built in 1948, woolgrowers in the valley needed a place to store their wool until the bags could be loaded on the train for shipment back east.

Back then, 25 sheep ranchers got financing to build the facility at 185 Ranney St.

"In the spring, between here and Browns Park, you would pass 12 herds on the highway," LeFevre said.

He also said the number of ewes grazing north of Hayden set a record.

"Hayden shipped more lambs than anywhere in the United States," Lefevre said. "That was the closest shipping place on the rails."

The Wool Warehouse was twice as long then as it is now. In the spring of 1984, snowfall caused a roof failure, and only half the original building was saved.

In its prime, the warehouse could load eight railcars at one time. The wool was shipped to mills from Massachusetts to Georgia.

In 1949, a letter from the Moffat County State Bank bears a Craig postmark that says, 'World's Largest Wool Shipping Center."

Sheep controversy

Forty years earlier, Northwest Colorado was not so friendly to sheep ranchers.

When the railroad came to Craig in 1913, Moffat County was home to other grazing livestock, Museum of Northwest Colorado Director Dan Davidson said.

"This was serious cattle country back then," Davidson said about the slaughter of a herd of sheep east of Craig in 1911. "Everyone assumed it was cattlemen, but they never were able to catch anybody."

Richard and Mary Winder came to Hayden in 1920 to raise sheep, and by 1925, they had acquired the Two-Bar Ranch northwest of Craig. Three years later, they were running 13,000 ewes on the ranch, according to newspaper articles.

During World War II, the demand for wool kept ranchers busy.

The Craig Ram Sales began in 1942, and six years later National Geographic came to town to do a color movie on wool: "From the birth of the lamb, to a fleece walking down the street as a coat."

Today, the Craig Wool Warehouse is filled with bags of wool waiting to be shipped out by truck instead of train.

The stacks of wool bags belong to the three ranching families still active in the warehouse, including Raftopoulos, Nottingham and Kourlis.

The bags weigh between 525 and 625 pounds and are moved by a forklift fitted with a clamp that can lift four bags at a time.

A semi-trailer can take 114 bags if they're stacked correctly, LeFevre said with a smile, because he knows exactly how to stack the truck.

The burlap bags have been replaced with a plastic woven bag that is packed full of wool at the shearing corrals.

LeFerve said the warehouse is simply a storage yard for wool, which is sold by the owners. It is then shipped from the local warehouse.

"I don't sell any wool," LeFevre said, pointing around the warehouse. "This has all been sold to a mill."

Wool quality

Before a mill will purchase any wool, it must be tested. That process begins at the warehouse, when a rod is pushed two feet into a bag to take a core sample.

Testing will inform buyers about the length and strength of the wool in the bag, as well as the moisture content and dirt contained in the wool.

Finer, longer wool commands a higher price, LeFevre said. Black wool is not good wool.

Ewes, bucks, and yearlings all have different quality wool.

Where the wool came from on the sheep also matters when determining the bottom line.

The good wool is fleece, LeFevre said. Less will be paid for the skirts, pieces, tags and bellies. Wool trimmed off the rears and eyes of the sheep in the fall is called cretchings, and it is shorter and less valuable.

The American Sheep Industry sets the standards for wool, and the market sets the price.

"In the grease," is the term used for dirty wool that hasn't been scoured or cored yet.

Before wool is ready to be made into yarn or other products, it must be scoured.

The truckload of bags on one side of the warehouse is being sent to San Angelo, Texas, for the scouring process, where the wool will be washed and dried.

At that point, the wool is shipped off to the buyer -- in this case, Pendleton Woolen Mills -- where it will be turned into consumer products.

Smaller sheep ranches are members of the wool pool, where the wool is combined into bags big enough to satisfy a buyer. Sheep ranchers around Northwest Colorado and Wyoming fill the 700-pound bags in the pool.

International shipyard

Last year, LeFevre loaded bags of wool onto shipping containers headed for the Czech Republic and China.

The large stack of bags on the north side of the warehouse is headed to Chargeur's Wool USA Inc. in Jamestown, S.C., to be made into yarn. Last year, Craig sent five loads there.

LeFevre has seen a number of big sheep operations go broke, he said. He knows about only three outfits in the county that still run about 12,000 head. Sometimes the children aren't interested in taking over the business.

"The sheep ranching business is surviving," LeFevre said. "But they need a little help. They need government land to run on."

LeFevre said he practically lives at the warehouse in April, when the wool is coming in.

He also stays busy on the days when the wool is shipped to other states and throughout the world.

Dan Olsen can be reached at 824-7031, ext. 207, or dolsen@craigdailypress.com.

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