by Dr. Jessica Madison
Sheep have long been an important part of Kentucky’s history, though their numbers have experienced a dramatic rise and fall over the years. They came through Cumberland Gap and down the Ohio River with the first European settlers. Kentucky was considered the backcountry part of Virginia when the colonies declared their independence from England. The British had placed restrictions on importing sheep and exporting wool to limit competition, but American colonists declared their independence not only by throwing tea into Boston Harbor but also by raising their own sheep and spinning their own wool. In fact, three of the first four presidents were Virginia farmers who were inaugurated in suits made of American wool.
Kentucky historian Thomas Clark has written of the typical numbers of livestock found on diversified pioneer homesteads, including a few sheep, as well as the difficulty those pioneers encountered in dealing with predatory dogs. Historian Wilma Dunaway has noted that although frontier families raised much of their own food, contributing to a considerable degree of independence, they almost always raised a surplus of some goods for trade, and some of the more prosperous landowners even hired tenant farmers to tend their flocks and fields. Interviews in the second volume of the Firefox series reveal that it was common for Southern Appalachian families to raise flocks of small but hardy sheep that free ranged through most of the year and provided them with wool for their clothes around the turn of the century. In nearby Cade’s Cove, Tennessee, a few shepherds raised large flocks and attempted to organize a cooperative to sell their sheep in Kentucky. Despite fence laws restricting range grazing, and later the blight attack on the great American chestnuts that had been a major source of livestock feed, the presence of sheep continued to grow. In 1878, John Hayes in Sheep Husbandry in the South pointed to Kentucky as an example for other states to follow as they diversified economies that had relied too heavily on cotton. Two years later, Tennessee Commissioner of Agriculture J.B. Killebrew wrote in Sheep Husbandry that the mountains of Eastern Tennessee and Kentucky were an ideal environment for the expansion of the sheep industry.
By the early 20th century, Kentucky had become a leading producer of sheep. The prominence of sheep in the state can be seen in the many postcards depicting pastoral scenes found in the collection of the Kentucky Historical Society from the years 1909-1927. On the eve of World War 2, Kentucky was the second largest sheep producing state, second only to Texas, with approximately 1.4 million sheep. It was a hub for industrialized wool mills, as well as traditional artisans. Churchill Weavers, founded in 1922 by former missionaries to India D.C. and Eleanor Churchill, at one point employed enough people to operate 150 hand weaving looms in Berea. In addition to its fine wool, Kentucky was known for its lamb and mutton in fancy restaurants. The Bluegrass region was known worldwide for breeding Southdown sheep. In fact, Henry Carlisle Besuden, an agriculture major and basketball player for the UK Wildcats in the 1920s, managed to save his family farm in Winchester by starting a flock of Southdowns, and was a 12-time world champion Southdown breeder at the International Livestock Exposition in Chicago between 1950 and 1971. Furthermore, Lexington was the home of Sheepman: The Practical Sheep Magazine for Flock Owners of America, printed 1929-1954.
After reaching its peak in the early 1940s, however, the number of sheep began a steady decline in the state and the nation. Why? Many explanations have been offered, including the invention of synthetic fabrics, global market competition, and even the unsavory canned mutton rations served to troops. Sheepman magazine repeatedly addressed the noticeable decline in sheep farming in its final year of publication, 1954, encouraging shepherds to remain positive with articles such as “Sheep Field Offers Real Opportunities,” “USDA Official Foresees Good Future for Sheep,” and “Looking Ahead…Some Comments on the Outlook for the Sheep Industry.” They acknowledged the need for cooperation in tackling the age-old problem of marauding dogs (at a time before coyotes came to have a greater presence) and stabilizing wool prices, welcoming the National Wool Act. And yet numbers continued to slide. Alarmed by the downward trend, in 1960 the Kentucky Agricultural Experiment Station published a study based on interviews of sheep farmers across the Bluegrass. Advantages and Problems in Sheep Production cited dogs, foot rot, and parasites as the top three disadvantages troubling producers, and one fourth of current shepherds either planned to quit or were considering whether or not to continue. They revisited the issue in 1967 with the publication of Sheep Raising as a Profitable Enterprise, noting the continued decline despite stable lamb and wool prices.
So why were so many shepherds giving up when problems such as predators and parasites had always been a part of raising sheep? I suspect that the answer is found in the national trend away from farming in the post-war years. There was a dramatic decline in the number of all farms, as more young people than ever chose to migrate to cities and seek industrial jobs. Cattle numbers remained steadier due to consolidation into fewer but larger farms. In a telephone interview with long-time Bluegrass shepherd Bob Hall, he confirmed that his first-hand experience pointed to the same conclusion, a shortage of labor. The life of a shepherd, he observed with great insight, is not all glamourous, and when problems arise, not everyone has the will to continue. But as the Sheepman columnist by the pen name “Old Timer” wrote in May of 1954, “…you never become a sheepman until you have your troubles and learn to overcome them…”
The rise and fall of sheep in Kentucky, then, is tied directly to the presence or absence of shepherds who are committed to riding out the hard days and patiently waiting for the good fruit of their labor. I doubt we will ever see 1.4 million sheep in Kentucky again, but opportunities abound for any shepherd who is willing to answer the call to carry on the tradition. Demand is strong and prices are high. Although there may be fewer fellow shepherds today, there are new opportunities for education and networking, thanks to outreach efforts such as the University of Kentucky’s EweProfit schools, the Kentucky Sheep and Goat Development Office, and grassroots organizations like the Southeast Kentucky Sheep Producers Association. Today we have access to valuable tools such as electronet fences and NSIP estimated breeding values. There is great interest in reviving the presence of sheep on former coal surface mine sites, and the Pine Mountain Settlement School is reintroducing the Sheep to Shawl workshops, reminding Kentuckians now as it did a century ago that we have a rich heritage that can still enrich our future with opportunities that pre-dated the boom-and-bust of the coal and timber industries or long commutes and layoffs outside the region.
We need to be realistic in addressing the hardships of raising sheep while also remaining positive about the many advantages, both material and intangible. The timeless challenges are complicated by a “generation gap,” not simply because many new shepherds lack the experience passed down from the previous generation, but also because so much has changed over time. Historical perspective is useful to the present and the future by empowering us to preserve lessons from the past as we adapt to inevitable change. For example, prior to the 20th century, there were no coyotes east of the Mississippi River. By the 1970s, when they made their way into Kentucky, the few shepherds who remained faced an unprecedented threat. Some of them adapted by turning to livestock guardian dogs, which had been used successfully for centuries in Europe and Asia. I know firsthand the difficulties a shepherd can face. My first five years have been a steep learning curve, and I am still learning. But I also know that, like marriages or any business venture, most farms that remain committed through the challenges of the early years can grow strong and endure.
One thing has remained the same for shepherds across time and space, and that is the importance of encouragement from family and friends. In his inspirational poem “The Farm,” just before describing the life of a shepherd, Wendell Berry writes,
Stay years if you would know
The work and thought, the pleasure
And grief, the feat, by which
This vision lives…
Fellow shepherds, I encourage you to “stay years” and keep the vision alive.
Dr. Jessica Madison, a graduate of the University of Kentucky, teaches American History for Eastern Kentucky University and University of the Cumberlands. She raises Katahdin sheep, Maremma dogs, and donkeys on Madison Family Farm in Annville, Kentucky, with her husband and four children.