The 15th annual Trailing of the Sheep Festival will take place throughout the Wood River Valley this weekend, celebrating the long and storied tradition of sheep ranching and all things wool in Blaine County.
According to historical records gathered by members of the Trailing of the Sheep committee, the first sheep were brought to the valley in the 1880s by John Hailey, the founder of the town that bears his name. By the time the mining boom played out in the early 1900s, the sheep industry was one of the only viable economic activities supporting the valley.
"Idaho had a breeding population of 14,000 sheep in the 1860s," said Mary Austin Crofts, chief organizer of the Trailing of the Sheep Festival. "In 1905, 95,000 sheep were sheered in one week in the Wood River Valley alone, by hand. There were 2.65 million sheep in Idaho by 1918, six times the number of people."
At one time, herders could be seen herding 1 million to 2 million sheep through the Wood River Valley. The area had become one of the biggest wool-producing regions in the world, second only to Sydney, Australia.
Highlights of the festival include:
- Sheep Tales Gathering: Friday, Oct. 7, at nexStage Theatre, Ketchum, 7:30-9 p.m.
A showing of "Heartland," following a reception with the producer. The film "Heartland" will be shown to give some historical perspective on sheep ranching. The film follows the story of a woman who moved from Denver to Wyoming in the early 20th century to work for a Scottish sheep rancher.
"It tells the true story of what life was like at that time and place, the drama and challenges of living off the land," Crofts said.
- Sheep Folklife Fair: Saturday, Oct. 8, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m., Roberta McKercher Park, Hailey.
Early in the morning on Saturday, 60 wool and art vendors, chefs and crafts people will arrive in Hailey. Re-created sheep camps will be assembled by ranchers with small flocks from around the West.
"They raise their sheep more like pets," Crofts said.
Attendees at the Folklife Fair can see all stages of wool production, from sheep-shearing to wool cleaning, carding, spinning, dying and weaving it into a finished product. Kids can see angora rabbits or attend classes at the Hailey Armory about wool preparation. Montana Wool Laboratory representatives will be on hand to test the wool for softness, strength and quality.
"The better your wool, the more money you get for it, whether you are selling it to Pendleton, Roswell or whomever," Crofts said.
With such a long history, sheep cultures have produced a lot of traditions. Several of them will perform all day long in Hailey, including the Peruvian musicians and dancers, the Oinkari Basque dancers, The Boise Highlanders bagpipers and drummers, and the Polish Tatra folklife musicians and dancers.
These cultures also produce a wide variety of lamb recipes. Six local restaurants and chefs will offer lamb dishes.
- A photography workshop will take place from 9-11 a.m. in Ketchum on Sunday. The cost is $25. Meet at the Ketchum Post Office to carpool to visit the parade sheep before they come to town. Photographers Michael Edminster and Jack Williams will share secrets on photographing sheep.
Edminster worked for six years as a shepherd for rancher John Faulkner. He carried a camera for many of those years and has compiled an exhibition of photographs that tell the story of a modern-day American shepherd.
- Trailing of the Sheep Parade: The big event of the weekend will be at noon Sunday, when 1,500 sheep come out of the mountains and head south through Ketchum on Main Street after a summer of grazing. The Footlight Dancers, Girl Scouts dressed as a flock of sheep, wagons with teams and all the performers from the Hailey Folklife Fair will parade through town.
"The whole idea has always been all over the world that the community hosts a celebration welcoming husbands, dogs and sheep back home. That is a big part of these kinds of celebrations," Crofts said. "Father Ken Brannon from St. Thomas Episcopal Church will be there too, reminding us to be the best sheep that we can be."
- Sheepherder hike and stories: Sunday, Ketchum Forest Service Park, 2-3:30 p.m.
A group will be led to Eagle Creek north of Ketchum to see tree carvings made by shepherds.
"These were the ways they communicated with one another and made sure they were going the right direction," Crofts said. "They were also ways to remember loved ones while they are out on three-year contracts working flocks in the mountains of Idaho."
Tony Evans: firstname.lastname@example.org
In 2011, the Trailing of the Sheep Festival is honoring women and their contributions to the development of Idaho and the West. In honor of women, the festival is planning a full-day symposium titled "Women Writing and Living the West" that will feature six of the finest women writers in the West along with ranching women to share their remarkable and powerful stories in a setting that is sure to be an historic event. This event is sponsored in part by the Idaho Humanities Council.