Friday, October 6, 2006

Loving the rural life

Carey ranchers instrumental in starting Trailing of the Sheep Festival

Express Staff Writer

John Peavey and Diane Josephy Peavey take a break in the meadows near their large sheep and cattle ranch. Photo by David N. Seelig

The long drive to John Peavey and Diane Josephy Peavey's Flat Top Sheep Ranch northeast of Carey takes visitors past rural—really rural—and then on to really remote.

Heading north from Carey, visitors pass increasingly spaced farm and ranch operations and then the Little Wood Reservoir before finally breaking out into the lovely mountain-ringed basin known simply as Muldoon.

Here in this massive sage-covered expanse of mountain, range and sky, the Peaveys make their home far removed from nearby neighbors.

It's a wonderful life, Diane Peavey said Wednesday.

"It's so satisfying," she said. "Being this connected to the land is like nothing I ever dreamed of."

Altogether, the Peaveys' ranch stretches across some 28,000 deeded acres, the majority of which is found in the Muldoon area. A smaller portion of the land they own—where they overwinter their cattle herd—is located down south in the sagebrush deserts near a place called Kimama, which is north of the towns of Burley and Buhl.

During the warmer months, the Peaveys graze their sheep and cattle across a large expanse of U.S. Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management grazing allotments in the Pioneer Mountains and foothills surrounding the main ranch.

In the winter, the Peaveys' sheep are trucked out of state to warmer grazing areas in California.

The center of the Peaveys' Flat Top Sheep Ranch is a collection of rustic outbuildings, pole barns and a variety of deciduous and evergreen trees all surrounding the main ranch house.

On Wednesday, animals both wild and tame could be seen.

Close in, a pure white Great Pyrenees guard dog rested in the tall grass with two young puppies. Farther out, a small herd of pronghorn antelope grazed on the grassy flats near a large band of sheep.

The couple's sheep herd is a mix of a large number of ewes of mixed breed and a much smaller number of Suffolk males. For now, the 75-odd Suffolk males, with their characteristic white bodies and black faces, are being kept quite busy courting the herd's ewes.

"It doesn't leave much time for a meaningful relationship," John Peavey quipped.

When he is on the ranch, a wiry black and white border collie called Agie trails behind him at all times. Agie is a working ranch dog pure and simple, as was evident Wednesday as the ranch's cowboys helped a local veterinarian conduct pregnancy tests on Angus heifers.

As one cow after another was passed through a squeeze chute, Agie watched through the corral gate with a stationary intensity only seen in purebred herd dogs.

The difficulty came when John tried to pry Agie away from the corral. Despite repeated calls, it took Agie several minutes to make it back to John's pickup truck.

Several times, Agie looked back to the corral with a look that could only be described as canine wistfulness.

The Peaveys' home is an interesting story in itself.

The house is actually a blending of three seasoned cabins the ranch's late founder, James Laidlaw, brought down from the Muldoon Mine site five miles north in the Pioneer Mountains. He pieced them together on site. The metal-roofed log home has a cozy, lived-in feeling to it.

"We've probably got one of the smallest houses in the county," John Peavey said.

Today, Laidlaw's gravesite sits on a prominent knoll overlooking the Peaveys' home and the ranch he started.

The rural nature of the Peaveys' remote Blaine County home has its share of challenges. The Peaveys receive their mail from down south in Carey, telephone service from over the hill in Hailey, and power from even farther in Mackay.

The work on the ranch isn't easy, either.

The Peaveys run upwards of 10,000 sheep and 3,000 Angus cows. The ranch's Angus herd is the oldest in the state. The animals are descendents of a herd Laidlaw brought in sometime around 1900.

Once a visitor arrives at the Peaveys' sheep and cattle operation, it's easy to see they're not on some hobby rancher's spread.

Clearly, the Peaveys' ranch is the real thing.

Nearby, sheep dogs, purebred Angus cows and cowboys—the real kind wrapping up season-ending work—rubber stamp this operation's authenticity.

"This operation is not a Town & Country operation," Diane Peavey said with a laugh.

The Peaveys are a charming couple. They have one of those nice, joking back-and-forth banters that comes from 25 married years together.

The couple is also a striking match to the surrounding landscape. They move about their many-thousands-acre ranch with an ease borne from spending much of their time close to the land they love.

The couple met in Hailey in 1980 and were married not long after. Diane, a true fan of the gourmet qualities of mutton, was excited by the prospect of an unlimited supply of sheep, she said.

"A lifetime of lamb chops," Diane said.

The Peaveys are a multi-talented couple with interests that have stretched far beyond their rural surroundings to the radio airwaves and the halls of the Idaho state Capitol building.

In addition to being the author of "Bitterbrush Country," Diane Peavey's voice can also be heard weekly on Idaho Public Radio as she regales listeners about the joys of their rural life. She grew up in the state of New York, far from the Western landscape she now loves.

Her father, Albin Josephy, was a writer who focused on the American West and American Indians. He passed away last year. A book he wrote called "Lewis and Clark through Indian Eyes" was just recently published. The book is a collection of essays by native Americans about the impact of the Lewis and Clark expedition.

A third-generation rancher, John Peavey had a stint in the Marine Corps until 1960 and spent 21 years as an Idaho state Senator in what is now District 25. He has three children from a previous marriage and his mother, Mary Brooks, was also involved in politics and directed the U.S. Mint under the Nixon and Ford presidential administrations.

His grandfather, John Thomas, who was responsible for starting the western portion of the Peavey's ranch, was a U.S. senator for Idaho.

The multi-generational aspect of the Flat Top Sheep Ranch is deeper than just the Peaveys.

Since operations at the ranch began, the position of ranch manager has passed from Sam Burks to Dennis Burks and, now, Denny Burks.

"That's pretty terrific," Diane Peavey said.

Parked near the Peavey's house is John's Cessna 182 airplane. "The best model Cessna ever built," he said.

He uses the plane for a variety of ranch chores during the summer. This includes searching for lost sheep that have wandered too far from the herd.

Sheep will often end up on the tops of ridges near where the rest of the herd is being grazed, he said. "Sheep love to climb. Their ancestors were bighorn."

When a report of a lost sheep comes in, he takes off in his plane. "You fly the ridgetops," he said. "You can find them pretty easy."

The Peaveys were instrumental in the starting of the Wood River Valley's popular Trailing of the Sheep Festival. For this year's 10th annual festival, set to take place next week from Friday, Oct. 13, through Sunday, Oct. 15, the area's Basque culture and its impact on the local sheep trade will be highlighted.

"They have great stories," Diane Peavey said.

The highlight of the festival is arguably the trailing of sheep down Ketchum's Main Street. The event isn't just for show, she is quick to point out.

"This is not a re-enactment. We do this already," she said.

The festival's importance has much to do with the awareness it raises for both the history of Blaine County's sheep industry and the sheep ranching lifestyle itself.

Sheep people are not accustomed to having their ranching lifestyles noticed, Diane said. "It's a really quiet kind of private life," she said. "I think it's pretty romantic."

Many sheep ranchers who come to the festival are surprised to discover people are so interested in their lifestyle.

"They're just so moved by that," she said. "It makes them proud."

Back at the ranch, John Peavey was nearly beside himself with anticipation Wednesday as he looked to the west at the black clouds of an approaching rainstorm. Rain is something of a rarity in the fall, he said, and provides obvious benefits.

In less than an hour, the clouds would sweep over the Peavey ranch, showering intense rain and hail.

"Green grass in the fall is like a month of Christmas," he said. "The animals just love the green grass."

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