Some Interesting History (of Merino Sheep) - Sheep & Goats [Skip to Content]

Sheep & Goats
Illinois Livestock Trail
Some Interesting History (of Merino Sheep)
by J.A.B Walker

This is part on an article written by J.A.B Walker at the request of the Sheep and Wool Department of the Pennsylvania Agricultural College, in order to preserve some of the historical facts of Fine Wool Sheep history that other wise not be preserved. The article appeared in the May 1926 issue of the American Sheep Breeder and Wool Grower in the Merino Department, the monthly column of the American and Delaine Merino Association, Gowdy Williamson Secretary.

My earliest recollection of the Fine Wool Sheep business in western Pennsylvania goes back to the early sixties (62-63). At the time almost every farm was stocked with Merinos – Saxons, they were called. They were small in size and produced a fleece weighing from 3 to 4 lbs of Brook washed wool of a xx or xxx (2 to 3) grade of quality for which there was a great demand by the eastern fine cloth manufacturers, some of them sending special agents or buyers from their mills in order to secure the choicest clips. A natural result of this way of buying was a rivalry among the wool growers in the production in the production of wool of the highest quality without much regard to the weight of fleece. The course of breeding necessary to develop this high quality of fleece tended to diminish some of the other qualities necessary in the profitable sheep, such as weight of carcass, constitution and form, and the Civil War caused a demand for wool of medium quality. As the market price of fine and medium was about the same, and an increase in the weight of fleece as a means of profitable production was desirable, a revolution in the mode of breeding at once took place and as the Merinos of Vermont and Connecticut had been preserved in their purity from the original Spanish importations, a means of increasing the weights of the fleeces of their flocks by crossing with Spanish Merino rams from Vermont to meet the demands of changed conditions at once suggested itself to the minds of the flockmasters of western Pennsylvania and eastern Ohio. The situation thus created caused by the desire was at once embraced by a class of Vermont speculators afterward known as “Yankee Sheep Pedlars”, who brought so called pure bred Spanish Merino rams and ewes and sold them to the Farmers at prices varying from $25 to $200 and over per head. These animals were undoubtedly of no material benefit to the flocks on which they were crossed the majority of them probably being from grade flocks, and were of little value in permanently improving the then existing flocks except in increasing the amount if oil or grease in the fleece and putting a number of wrinkles on the bodies of their offspring. Many of the sheep sold by these pedlars were lacking in constitution and hardiness and were short in staple and uneven in quality and so much oil was in their fleeces that on cold days in winter they would almost freeze, this excessive amount of oil rendering then incapable of withstanding the severity of our climate and resulting in their unpopularity.

The high price of wool during the Civil War acted as a stimulus and caused the wool growers to seek the source from which rams could be obtained that when crossed in their flocks would increase the amount of PURE wool they could produce which at the time was the test of profit in wool growing. Brooked washed wool selling during the summer of 1864 for @1.00 per pound.

This was emphatically a GOLDEN AGE for the fine wool breeders and wool growers, wool selling for high prices, and resulted in the purchase in Vermont and Connecticut and from pure bred home flocks of rams and ewes on which were laid the foundation of pure bred flocks which subsequently attained great prominence…. The sheep were very popular and excelled in the per cent of pure wool in proportion to live weight – many of them clipping one pound of wool for four pounds of live weight and their fleeces in many instances being nearly as long and thick on the belly, legs, forehead, cheeks, etc as on the backs and sides. Their fleeces were even in style throughout (that is it was as fine and well crimped in what is usually the coarser parts as the in the main parts of the fleece) thus making it especially valuable to the manufacturer. In form these sheep were large, low, broad-backed, strong-boned – models of compactness and many of them almost perfect models of beauty for fine wooled sheep. The best specimens at the time to which I am writing were not nearly as much wrinkled as many of the Spanish Merinos were in later years when extreme weight of unwashed wool became an object sought for by many breeders, many of them only having wrinkles at the neck, tail, thigh and flank and being smooth on the sides except for one or two small ones just back of the front leg. Experience has since proven that the wrinkly monstrosities that for a few years were fashionable were not possesses of much merit from the great mass of wool growers. …….

« Back to Sheep & Goats