Sheep. These quiet, unassuming animals are often the unsung backbone of any culture and society. Sheep have provided food and clothing for centuries, and sheepherders are almost as old as time itself. Today, sheep still play a large role in the economy of Idaho, even though the animals were not native to this country. The majority of sheep in the United States were originally brought over by the English and Spanish, and the sheep present in the West were brought up from Mexico.
Now, every year in the Sun Valley area, before winter, there’s an event that celebrates the history and culture of sheepherding. It spans four days. This festival takes place when the sheep are being moved to their winter grounds, and it celebrates everything sheep. From food, fiber, and music, the Trailing of the Sheep Festival is a grand event that celebrates the rich tradition of sheepherding that has existed in the valley for many generations.
First Sheep in Wood River Valley
The Trailing of the Sheep website outlines the history of sheepherding in southwest Idaho, and it’s said that one man is responsible. John Hailey is the man credited with bringing the first sheep to the valley. It was the late 1860s, and the sheep population in the entire state was only 14,000.
Mining had played a large role in the development and economy of much of Idaho, but many mines didn’t last for long. As mining began to slow down and die out in the Wood River Valley, sheep began to become even more important. Sheepherding filled the economic void that mining was leaving, and by the 1890s, the sheep population had exploded. There ware approximately 614,000 sheep in the state. The sheep industry boomed, and in 1918 the sheep population measured into the millions. The sheep population outnumbered the human population until 1970. Declines in the industry and the arrival of new residents finally tipped the scales in the favor of people, but only by about 13,000.
Second in the World
Sheepherding took off in a big way. As the industry grew, and the railroads shipped thousands of sheep and lambs a week across Idaho and to other markets, Ketchum became a major sheep center. At the time, it was only beat by one other sheep center in the world, Sydney, Australia.
Even when Sun Valley started appearing on the map for a different reason, sheep were still the driving force in the economy of the region. When the ski resort opened in 1936, a general store in Ketchum served as the sheep center. The store was owned by sheepherder Jack Lane, and he helped keep the sheep industry moving.
When the depression hit, everything was hit. The sheep industry was shaken with the dropping price of lambs, but Jack Lane kept the industry alive in Ketchum. When few other people would loan, or lend credit, to the sheepherders, Jack Lane stepped up and helped them out. Even though it took some years to pay him back, Jack stood by them.
A Culture of Sheep
The sheep industry in the region wasn’t just shaped by Idahoans. It was helped by the Scots, and even the Basques. James Laidlaw, a Scot, played a vital role in the sheep industry by developing some incredible breeds of sheep, including the Panama breed, one of the finest in the state. He came here with only the clothes on his back, and was paid in sheep. He built his business through hard work and determination, and forever shaped the industry.
The Basques originally came to search for gold, but many instead found work as sheepherders. The Basques were an integral part of growing the sheep industry here, as their dependability and work ethic allowed sheep owners to keep large numbers of sheep in remote areas. The sheep stayed under the Basques care. Many of the Basques stuck around, and created their own sheep operations.
Today, the Trailing of the Sheep Festival celebrates the sheep industry in Idaho, and pays respect to the men that worked tirelessly to secure sheepherding in the state. It’s a celebration of the sheep, and just how important the sheep are to the region around Ketchum. The sheep industry has survived, and thrived, and when you visit the Trailing of the Sheep, you’ll see that it’s still a huge part of the economy, and culture, of the area around Ketchum and Sun Valley.