Those who have time to attend only one event during the Trailing of the Sheep Festival should consider making it the Sheep Folklife Fair. OK, maybe work in the actual sheep trailing parade through Ketchum on Main Street, too, but the growing popularity of the fair and abundance of cut-rate lamb delicacies makes it a must-see.
Traditional dances, a fiber festival, classes, folk art, music, food and demonstrations are included in the day’s activities. This will be the 18th annual event. The fair is on Saturday, Oct. 11, at Roberta McKercher Park in Hailey from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Of the 19,000 people who attended Trailing of the Sheep in 2013, 6,000 attended the Folklife Fair, according to event Executive Director Mary Austin Crofts.
The Austin, Texas,-based band “Hot Club of Cowtown” was met with rave reviews at last year’s festival, so “a couple of local cowboys” helped Crofts and her team finance them for a second year. Crofts described the trio as a hot jazz and Western swing group.
A variety of cultural dancing and musical groups with ties to herding traditions will celebrate the sheepherding history of the Wood River Valley and beyond.
Idaho has one of the largest Basque populations in the country. Immigration from Europe peaked in the early 19th century, with some newcomers following the gold rush in the Western part of the United States. They settled into the Western states as sheepherders and restaurateurs in the 1920s. In 1929, sheep outnumbered people in Idaho by 7 to 1. Today, there are far fewer Basques in Idaho, but their cultural presence remains.
The Oinkari Basque Dancers of Boise have been performing since 1960. Their name is derived from the Basque language of Euskera and means dancer, or “one who does with his feet.” The group’s website describes its style as “a whirl of flying feet, snapping fingers, ancient music and shouts of exhortation, a thrilling combination of precision and enthusiasm.” All the dancers are of Basque descent and many speak Euskara.
Peruvians make up the majority of Idaho’s shepherds today. The state has the ninth largest sheep production in the United States, with over 250,000 animals. The U.S. Department of Labor allows Peruvians to live here to manage those herds on three-year contracts. Dancing is a touchstone in Peruvian culture—their costumes feature a rainbow of colors, and lively music accompanies their performances.
The Boise Highlanders make up the Scottish performers and feature a range of instruments. The Scots established “sheep empires” in the 1800s throughout the western part of the country. They were known for creating successful new crossbreeds of sheep and amassing huge tracts of land to ranch. Idaho has one of the highest numbers of Scottish-Americans in the country and, in large part, that is due to the sheepherding legacy.
The Polish Highlanders are flying in from Chicago for their 12th year at the festival. Though Polish-Americans might not have local sheepherding traditions, the practice is part of their culture. The Tatra Mountains in Poland have deep roots in sheepherding, and the Chicago dancers aim to celebrate that tradition with other sheepherding cultures.
“[The dances] are a multicultural experience that you don’t get here [often],” Crofts said.
The sheep business has various secondary uses. Soap, for one. There are nearly 60 vendors who’ve signed up for spots at the fair. The only requirement? Items of a sheep-like nature must be for sale.
“Even as every vendor accepted is required to sell handcrafted items made from wool or of a ‘sheep nature’—the designs and colors, patterns and products are as unique as the individuals who create them,” said Sheila Kelley, Folklife Fair director.
Vendors may also offer alpaca, rabbit and goat blends. Kelley said some merchants are selling soaps made of lanolin or sheep’s milk and rubs/vinaigrettes meant to accompany lamb dishes. Lark’s Meadow Farm, a popular dairy farm out of Rexburg, will offer its sheep cheese.
The fair’s returning vendors show an unwavering commitment to the one-day event, Kelley said. They drive to the valley mostly from Oregon, Montana, Utah and Wyoming, as well as from within the state. Vendors will often rent motel rooms the night before, she said, to show up with their wares early Saturday morning.
“Some come only to our fair, taking the year to create what they bring to sell,” she said. “If they don’t raise the animal, they get the wool from family or friends. They can tell you where the wool came from and probably the name of the sheep.”
There are always the folks who come just for the food. The lamb feast at the Folklife Fair features 10 local chefs creating lamb dishes, all for $7 a plate. Described as “small plate tastings,” the dishes will be available for purchase between 11 a.m. and 4 p.m.
Events at the Sheep Folklife Fair
- Peruvian musicians and dancers.
- Oinkari Basque Dancers.
- Boise Highlanders, bagpipers, drummers and dancers.
- Polish Highlanders of Chicago, musicians and dancers.
- Hot Club of Cowtown performance.
- Sheep shearing demonstrations.
- Sheep wagon displays.
- Spinning and weaving demonstration.
- Children’s activities.
- Wool and craft artisans.
- Quilt show.
- Plein Air Painters of Idaho.
- $7 lamb feast featuring 10 local chefs.
- Beverages from MillerCoors and the Sawtooth Winery.