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For the week of Oct. 20, 1999 through Oct. 26, 1999

Flat Top Sheep Ranch: Peavey country as far as the eye can see

Challenging road through Muldoon Canyon leads to a piece of Idaho history


After turning east off Highway 75 at the Bellevue post office, first-time visitors heading to Diane and John Peavey’s home find the winding "driveway," such as it is, a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

But the real eye-popper is later, when finally getting a glimpse of the Peaveys’ surroundings.

Their place is more than 20 miles from the Bellevue turnoff, at the end of a stunningly picturesque, but challenging, drive on a rock-strewn dirt road through Muldoon Canyon and surrounding foothills, where vistas range from barren desert to lush stands of aspen and willow trees, with occasional glimpses of wildlife dawdling in the open fields.

But once the hour-long drive—often at creep-and-crawl speeds on curves with sheer drop-offs—comes to an end, the rewards are a treasure: nestled beside a small creek against a cluster of trees is the old Peavey house, three rescued structures, circa 1890, assembled into a single L-shaped residence with a wide-angle view of sweeping, unspoiled grandeur that Hollywood could use as a frontier America film set.

For as far as the eye can see in all directions, this is Peavey country—-250,000 acres of federal, state and private lands—consisting of meadows, foothills, sudden upthrusts of rugged volcanic rock, fishable streams, an area slightly larger than New York City (197,760 acres). Peavey says end to end the lands cover 100 miles.

This is not the hideout of a pair of social dropouts seeking isolation from fast-paced workaday America.

Notwithstanding the joyous benefits of such tranquil surroundings, this is Flat Top Sheep Ranch, a working sheep and cattle spread over which Peavey, 66, presides as the third generation landlord, along with a fourth generation, son Tom, 35. Other Peavey children have chosen different directions—Karen is a certified public accountant, and David a Silicon Valley technowhiz.

"Gosh, you live a really long way out," Diane Peavey chimes in with a chuckle, reciting the customary reaction of first-time travelers to Flat Top Sheep Ranch.

"But we love it," she adds, scanning the kitchen where a functioning wood-burning stove of the frontier era shares space with electronic doodads of the 1990s—-a computer for e-mail and ranch business, telephone and FAX. As late as 1960, the ranch relied on a crank telephone and an operator who could even track down people in a Hailey bar.

History of the sort that spellbinds visitors also comes with the ranch. Atop a foothill across the meadow from the house is a spear-shaped monument made of rocks molded together in concrete.

Beneath it lies the remains of James Laidlaw, who settled the ranch and died in 1950. Because the ground at Flat Top was frozen, Laidlaw’s body was stored in deep freeze in Boise.

Come warm weather, however, his family and friends blasted a hole large enough for a casket, and then, as provided in his last wishes with friends, everyone shared in several rounds of robust whisky.

Someone—a Peavey or a ranch hand—usually makes the tedious trip to town each day for errands.

But the remote isolation is not absolute. With 3,000 hours of flight time, Peavey keeps a weathered 1959 single-engine Cessna 182 parked in a nearby meadow to make hurried 10-minute flights across the Pioneers to Hailey’s Friedman Memorial Airport, or elsewhere when needs arise.

As if to explain the appearance of the 40-year-old family aircraft, Diane has a ready, if not wholly believable, story:

"When we land, people come running out with paint and brushes offering to paint it."

Mother Nature’s winter at the Flat Top Sheep Ranch, however, can be cruel. With temperatures that sometimes plunge to 45 degrees below zero, and snow making the ranch road impassable, the Peaveys retreat to a Ketchum condo during those months.

Peavey remembers a metaphorical sight when returning to the ranch for the first time after a bitter winter—an antelope was scampering along the road back toward its habitat.

"He was as happy to be back and to go home as I was."

Despite a touch of arthritis that limits his horseback riding, Peavey finds ample chores around his spread—-not only the aggravating paperwork required of federal agencies whose land he leases, but fixing fences, working the sheep and cattle and flying remote canyons to look for lost animals.

The Peaveys are a unique couple. Their appearances and lifestyle as ranchers belie cosmopolitan attitudes, interests, activities and family backgrounds that explain why, unlike almost any other Idaho ranchers, they’re so synonymous with the state’s sheep industry as well as admired figures in Wood River Valley civic life.

Not the least of their most recent visible projects is "Trailing the Sheep," a new yearly effort to educate urban expatriates of the Wood River Valley about economic, social and environmental benefits of sheep.

This year’s "Trailing" festival, held over the Oct. 9-10 weekend, drew record crowds to watch a band of sheep herded south on Ketchum’s Main Street amid a celebration of the area’s sheep industry and its culture.

For her part, Diane is not only a homemaker and helpmate in the Flat Top Sheep Ranch operation, but an ardent spokesperson and booster of sheep products. She spreads the gospel in a weekly commentary on National Public Radio’s regional Idaho network, spinning tales about experiences in ranching and country life.

Diane’s skills with words and an eye for storytelling come naturally: her father, Alvin Josephy, a former editor at Time and American Heritage magazines, is author of more than a dozen books, most of them ambitious, energetically researched histories of the West and Native Americans. He served as the first chairman of the new Smithsonian Museum of the American Indian.

(Diane also brags about another of her father’s journalistic landmarks: he conducted a rare interview with old-line Russian Communist Leon Trotsky before Trotsky was assassinated in Mexico City in 1940.)

Although Diane’s roots in her youth go back to the less rugged digs of Connecticut and the District of Columbia, she summered in northeastern Oregon where her father bought a small ranch, and where she cultivated her passion for the west.

John Peavey, thoroughly likeable and popular with his relaxed ways, is a regular around the Valley in his battered old felt cowboy hat, usually at the wheel of a dusty pickup, accompanied by his old Border Collie sheepdog, Jock, and always good for sidewalk conversation.

Like Diane, he’s the product of a fascinating family whose sprawling diversity enriched the man who’s gained such wide admiration and respect over the years.

Raised in Twin Falls, Peavey has a degree from Northwestern University in engineering.

His paternal grandfather was U.S. Sen. John Thomas, who began assembling what is now the Flat Top Ranch around 1920. When Peavey was 8 years old, his lawyer father died in a Snake River accident.

Thereafter, his mother married U.S. Sen. Curly Brooks— and in time, Mary Peavey Brooks became director of the U.S. Mint under presidents Nixon and Ford.

So, it was no surprise that in time Peavey would find himself thoroughly immersed in his own political career—20 years in the Idaho state Legislature as a Republican state senator.

In his customary economy of words and with the signature smile and twinkle in his eyes that come easily, Peavey said it was his work on behalf of numerous environmental projects, including helping found the Idaho Conservation League, and good government causes (legislation requiring disclosure of campaign and lobbying contributions) that ultimately soured the GOP on him.

He has since been a Democrat and an energetic environmentalist.

Which has created something of a Catch-22:

Despite Peavey’s environmental good works, many environmentalists have inferentially placed Peavey on their public enemies’ list with their complaints about the livestock industry.

This has energized Peavey into action to dramatize the story of the sheep and pointing out their compatibility with the environment.

Enter "Trailing the Sheep," the new Wood River Valley event that some believe may become as big a civic and tourism attraction as the historic Wagon Days celebration.

Although a self-serving effort to bolster the image of sheep, Peavey’s "Trailing the Sheep" also has enough of a tourism draw that it’s being promoted by the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber of Commerce as an event to lure sightseers downtown.

Like most sheep ranchers, Peavey has watched in dismay as his industry has shrunk, sometimes as the result of changing consumer habits, the introduction of synthetics to take the place of wool, new regulations that cover ranching, and, worse, the impact of foreign wool and lamb imports on the domestic U.S. sheep industry, principally from New Zealand and Australia.

Consider these numbers:

In 1942, when sheep producers were pressured by the government to provide increasing amounts of meat and wool for the World War II effort, sheep ranchers were herding 56 million head.

Now, in 1999, the head count in U.S. sheep is down to an estimated 7.2 million, according to the American Sheep Industry Association.

Idaho’s share in 1942 was slightly more than two million sheep, but now is down to about 265,000 head, placing it ninth among the states (Texas is first).

The Peavey ranching operation involves about 2,500 beef cattle, and about 4,500 ewes, which give birth to 5,000-plus lambs in the spring.

Most residents of the Wood River Valley rarely see sheep, except when they’re moved through the valley northward in the spring, and southward to warmer climes in October.

Bands of perhaps 2,000 sheep at a time move through side streets of Ketchum to pastures in outlying hilly areas, occasionally delaying city vehicular traffic.

As Diane explains it, ex-urbanites who’re swelling the Valley’s population were confused.

"This is a resort community with golf courses and multimillion dollar homes, and here we go with our sheep, right through the valley. Roller bladers were calling and complaining about sheep droppings in their wheels.

So, "Trailing the Sheep" turned complaints into a celebration—some of the sheep moving south now are funneled right smack down Main Street in Ketchum, where streets are blocked and hundreds, if not thousands, of spectators can join in the parade out of town.

Last year’s parade of 1,700 of Peavey’s sheep was led by a bagpiper, but also included a lone protestor, bearing a sign, "Sheep destroy fragile ecosystems." Peavey said. With unconcealed delight, the protestor was booed all the way out of town.

A bagpiper once again led this year’s band of sheep, but no protestors could be found.

But there’s more than merely the downtown herding of sheep. The festival also includes demonstrations of sheep shearing, spinning and weaving wool, along with a traditional Basque dinner for 500, as well as lectures and distribution of literature on the role of sheep.

For the hardy of spirit and body with a yen to learn more, they can follow the sheep before dawn when bands resume their southward movement along trails beside Highway 75 south of Ketchum. It’s an earthy experience—the sounds of bleating sheep, the odor of animals, the clanging of bells, the commands of the Peruvian shepherds, the clop-clop-clop of horses, the barking sheep dogs.

To Peavey, sheep are not merely a business—they’re "a way of life," and his ranch "the source of my strength."

Looking out the kitchen window, John Peavey says that "I don’t care how tough things get, this is all so soothing."

"Trailing of the Sheep" gives the Peaveys opportunities to tell strangers why sheep are not only important, but also why they’re not environmental menaces.

For starters, Peavey says, "If you were going to stock an ark, two sheep would go first—for wool for clothing, meat to live by, and the richest milk in the world."

"Sheep love mountains," he adds. "They love to climb, they eat grass for nourishment and moisture. They graze lightly."

Environmentalists, with whom Peavey shares some concerns, "have lost touch" on the subject of ranching, he says. Ranchers are dedicated to caring for the land, otherwise their livelihood would slowly vanish.

Mindful of the sheep industry’s shrinkage in recent years, Peavey nevertheless is optimistic.

Congress is dealing with ways of stemming the flood of imported wool and meat. And he believes devoutly in the American palate for organically grown lamb and the top meat choices that will ensure a continuing market.

And why not be optimistic? Peavey notes that sheep have survived since biblical times.

Pat Murphy is an Idaho Mountain Express columnist


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