I heard a joke at the local café in Clinton the other day.
It went a little like this: What did the Ram say to the Ewe after the shearer left the farm? Ans: “Ewe’ve been fleeced.”
Oh, I know, that’s a pretty baaaaa-d joke.
A few sheep found a home on the Johnson Stateline farm beginning in the early 1920’s. Grandpa Herman favored the Shropshire breed, but area neighbors along with the Johnsons traded rams from farm to farm, and the genetics was often questionable
Sheep have a placeThe sheep earned their keep by taking care of the weeds around the farm buildings and the orchard during the 1930’s and the Depression. At the beginning of WWII our government started looking for wool which could be used for military uniforms, gloves, and fire retardant materials. Grandpa and Dad found that they could make a small profit if they expanded the flock, and so ten ewes grew to nearly 100 ewes on the Herman and Vernon Johnson farm.
By the 1950’s the sheep numbers had once again dwindled down to a few ewes which took up residence in an old chicken coop out in the orchard.
Dad and Grandpa agreed to let me get a few purebred sheep for my 4-H project in 1954. Neighbor Arlene Larson invited Dad and me to come over and get acquainted with her Corriedale sheep. I really liked the docile, white-faced breed with black points, and so with the help of 4-H leader, Delmar DeLong, and Corriedale breeder, Seldon Whitmore, I bought my first Registered Corriedales.
Wool Subsidy Passes
Coincidentally 1954 was also the year that Congress passed the National Wool Act. This Act encouraged farmers to raise sheep and to increase wool production. The wool was not only used in the military, but was a desirable fiber chosen by many for its: warmth, water proofing, fire retardant, and color dyeing properties. Farmers were getting only 25-35 cents a pound for wool, and it was costing $1 to shear each sheep. The Corriedale’s would shear out between 12 and 15 pounds of fine longer wool which brought a good price at the Midstate Wool Cooperative. The additional subsidy brought the wool price up to around $1 a pound, which made raising sheep profitable.
It always felt like Christmas when a husband-and-wife team would come to the farm each August with their big suitcases filled with clothing samples from the Minnesota Woolen Mills. Mother would order the men a shirt or two, but I would always get a sweater and a wool pleated skirt for the winter ahead. The material never wore out even though I grew out of them.
The Corriedale sheep was widely known for its fine wool and length of staple. The problem was that it had to come off the animal for the fibers to be woven into cloth, carpet, upholstery, or the like. That’s where the sheep shearer came in.
A few weeks before lambing commenced, the nearest sheep shearer would be called. He would usually go from farm to farm on the Stateline and do 4 to 5 small flocks on any given day. It was a back breaking job, but it was a necessity, and the sheep even enjoyed it once it was over.
Shearing day was a major event. The sheep were enclosed in the old, weathered sheep shed the night before so that they wouldn’t get wet from the snow or rain.
A sheep shearing platform or tarp was placed on the frozen pack, the shear master plugged in, and then Dad and I would catch a sheep in the corner and push, pull, or drag the sheep over to the shearer. On a good day, the shearer would shear the dozen or so ewes in less than two hours. The wool was rolled up in one piece with the outer dark wool rolled inside the fleece and then placed in a wooden box that had a natural fiber twine which could be drawn up around the bundle and tied. The fleece was packed into the 6-8-foot-long burlap bag which the shearer brought with him. It held up to 150 pounds of wool.
R. Douglas, M. Leder, L. Disch, M. Schilling, Held, and B. Hays, were shearer’s who helped us out at one time or another at fairs or the farm. Occasionally, I could hear one of the shearer’s mutter some complaint about the loose skin and wrinkles that could often be found on the sheep, but the men all did a skilled job of sliding that shear master up and over the brisket to make the first opening in the fleece.
Shearing day was also a good day to cut toenails and to check for ticks or for wounds and skin irritations.
Finding a Market
I realized that it was going to be difficult to find a shearer and a market for the wool after moving to Lincoln County. In 1970, I was put in contact with Marvin Schilling from Marathon, WI. He journeyed throughout the northern sections of Wisconsin shearing smaller flocks. Even though he had lost an arm in an accident, he was able to wield the shear master with finesse and speed.
After the wool was off the sheep, some of the fleeces were taken to the Wausau woolen mill which would card and make wool batts for the cold winter season. Some fleeces just lay on the hayloft floor and became home to wasp and hornet nests. We came to realize that it doesn’t do anyone much good for wool to be sitting in a pile on the barn floor, so that’s where hand spinners came in.
Mrs. Ralph Stromme, Sr. was teaching a spinning class at Nicolet College in Rhinelander, and she was thrilled to learn about our sheep farm where she could obtain a readily available source of fine wool. She would come out on shearing day and skirt, grade and select the fleeces that she could use for the class. She also was willing to pay $1 a pound for the fleeces, which eliminated the need for the subsidy.
Natural Dyes Abound
Alas, Mrs. Stromme talked me into getting an Ashford wheel and take up spinning. Carding the wool into roll-logs, plying the yarn, and pumping the wheel was relaxing and satisfying. The greased wool was a balm for the cold, chapped hands of winter. However, I will be the first to admit that I will never be any good at knitting. That is not one of my skills.
Producing natural dyes was of great interest to me, and I collected black walnuts, carrot tops, beets, and whatever I found suitable for the dye kettle.
Sons, Eric and Brent were gifted with cross-country socks with bright lime green borders and mittens with pink cuffs. They weren’t too impressed.
Eventually the Corriedale flock went off to Soldier’s Grove and were replaced with Hamp/Dorset crosses. Roger Douglas skillfully sheared those short wooled market type sheep for the next 20 years. He no longer had to worry about wrinkles, wool on the legs, and spinning fleeces, but then again, at the end of the day the ram and ewes were still fleeced.