“Our citizens have become so dependent upon the growing of wool that this article may be said to be the staple of the state.” Charles Paine, Vermont Governor, October 14, 1842
From 1820 to 1870 the raising of sheep represented a major activity for Vermont and New Hampshire farmers. During long stretches of that 50-year period the number of sheep far outnumbered citizens. The sheep-raising boom significantly impacted the local economy and ecology. Even after the bloom faded, the raising of sheep remained significant for many local farmers. This column examines that sheep raising period.
Prior to 1810, most farmers kept a few sheep around the homestead. The wool was homespun into cloth for blankets and garments and the meat eaten by the farmer’s family. Writing in 1794 about raising the animals in Vermont, Samuel Williams said, “the richness of the pastures, in new settlements, gives an extraordinary sweetness to the meat, and richness to the fleece.”
Most farmers suffered annual losses to wolves and bear. The sheep in Newbury’s meadows, Frederic Wells wrote in his town history, “had to be gathered at night into secure yards near the dwelling, to keep them out of the reach of rapacious but cowardly animals.”
Owners developed techniques to identify their animals when communal pasturing was practiced or in case animals strayed. This included unique ear cuts and punctures or smears of paint. In some towns, these brands were registered with the town clerk. Most communities had a town pound in which straying sheep were held until retrieved by their owner.
The establishing of local textile mills marked the decline of homespun production. The earliest ones were carding mills that readied wool for spinning and fulling mills that processed woven cloth.
In 1799 Richard Gookin of Haverhill began to manufacture wool carding machines, using techniques illegally exported from Britain. His machines were used widely by mills throughout New England.
By 1822 there were cloth-finishing mills in many local communities including Post Mills, Bradford Center, Haverhill and Wells River, most using power from local streams and rivers.
Subsistence sheep herding came to an end after 1809 with the introduction of Spanish Merinos by William Jarvis for his farm in Weatherfield, Vermont. These prime animals had fine, heavy fleeces. They were the first introduction of European purebred varieties and led to the great sheep boom in Vermont and New Hampshire.
This introduction came at a time when wheat as a cash crop in Vermont was declining due to Western competition and when larger woolen mills throughout New England created a demand for additional wool.
A number of factors made northern New England a prime location for what rapidly became sheep mania, a boom that took over local farms. One of the first was national events. A series of embargoes after 1808 and the war of 1812 raised the price of wool as imports were blocked. This was followed by a series of tariffs that further raised the price of imported wool, making locally produced wool more competitive.
Looking back, the 1890 Vermont Agricultural Report summed up other reasons: “the Vermont soil, Vermont climate, and the Yankee skills” created ideal places for the sheep industry to thrive. There were hill and river meadows ideal for grazing; brooks and small rivers for the washing of animals; stones to build hundreds of miles of fencing and compounds; new barns and sheds to provide shelter from cool weather; and hard working farm families to make this all possible.
The extent of the boom in sheep can be seen in the number of animals. In 1812 there were 11,227 sheep in Vermont. In 1840, at the height of the boom and with wool bringing high prices, there were 1,681,000 sheep in Vermont and 617,390 in New Hampshire.
Census figures reflect this growth in the local area. In the census of 1837, Orford had 8,053 head of sheep, Piermont- 4,195, Bradford- 4,249, Thetford- 7,258, Corinth- 6,272, Haverhill- 6,915, Vershire-4,558, and Newbury- 6,608. While large, these flocks were dwarfed by those in Shoreham, VT, located at the epicenter of the boom, with 41,000 head in 1840.
The 1840 census reported there were 156,053 sheep in Orange County, 100,886 in Caledonia and 174,664 in Grafton. That year Topsham had 6,111 in its flocks and Bradford’s had increased to 9,388, more than double the figure three years earlier. In many communities, sheep led to the exclusion of other agricultural staples.
Lyme was one of the largest sheep raising towns in the area. In Lyme there were 9,867 sheep in 1836, 12,557 in 1848 and 13,176 in 1855. Sheep-raising held on longer in Lyme than in most towns and the number of sheep never fell below 6,000 until 1886. Evidence of this could still be seen in the 1930’s with high stone walls and enclosures around Holt’s Ledge and Smarts Mountain
Spanish merinos were not the only breed being raised. French merinos were also imported along with English breeds including Southdowners, Oxfordshires and Cotswolds. Some strains were mutton stock.
This significant increase in herding had a major impact on farm ownership and society. In 1892 Vermont historian Rowland Robinson describing the annual Spring shearing ritual in these rosy terms: “Shearing-time was the great festival of the year. The shearers, many of whom were of the flock-owner’s well to do neighbors, were treated more as guests than as laborers, and the best the house could afford was set before them. The great barn’s empty bays and scaffolds resounded with the busy click of incessant shearers, the jokes, songs, and laughter of the merry shearers, the bleating of the ewes and lambs and the twitter of disturbed sparrows.”
As pasture land became more valuable, deforested landscapes became common. With the demand for sheep runs, poorer farmers were encouraged to sell out to their more prosperous neighbors. This caused many to seek new land in the West. In 1834, several publications carried a letter from the Green Mountaineer warning: “Beware of the ‘western fever’ and above all sell not your farms to your rich neighbors for sheep pastures.”
The boom also had an impact on towns and cities in the two states. Lebanon and Manchester in New Hampshire and Winooski and Bridgewater in Vermont are examples of communities that had large industries based on textile manufacturing. In 1879 Albert Carter of Thetford operated the Thetford Wool Mill, later moving it to Lebanon.
The mania began to wane in the mid-1840s. Despite opposition from farmers, the tariff on wool was lowered in 1841 and eliminated in 1846. Even as Governor Paine spoke of the importance of sheep-rising in his 1842 address, he warned of the dangers of overreliance.
Eastern sheep farmers suffered from competition from herds in the west where sheep could be raised in larger flocks and at lower costs. Sheep-raising was also introduced into Australia and South Africa in the 1830s and later into New Zealand and Argentina, resulting in increased competition for world wool markets. These factors indicated just how little control producers had over markets.
Despite the reduction in the number of sheep being raised in Vermont and New Hampshire, the amount of wool produced did not go down. Improved breeding led to a significant increase in the amount of wool per animal.
This success was defined in a 1922 report published in The National Wool Grower: “Vermonters took that fine-boned smooth, thin fleeced sheep from Spain and in three-quarters of a century transformed him into the oiliest, wrinkliest, heaviest-fleeced animal ever known.”
By 1850 many farmers found they could make more money breeding prized sheep than raising wool. Owners of prized rams could demand high prices for making them available for breeding and could sell an animal for up to $10,000. Sheep from Vermont were sold to establish and enhance flocks in Western states and abroad.
During the Civil War there was a brief increase in the demand for wool. This was the result of the decrease in availability of Southern cotton and increase in the demand for wool for military uniforms. In some localities the number of sheep was increased to meet this demand, despite warnings to beware of “fine wool on the brain.”
In Newbury during that period, “sheep raising was very profitable and at one time wool brought one dollar a pound. Everyone rushed into the wool business.” As the war ended there was an equally rapid decline and, in some cases, animals were slaughtered for one dollar apiece.
Despite the fact that the sheep-raising boom was over, sheep continued to be important. Family farms continued to have flocks, large and small, through the end of the century.
In March 1878 the Burlington Weekly Free Press reported “Orrin Rice of Springfield, has six cosset sheep that have brought the present season, 13 lambs, 11 of them alive and kicking. There were five pair of twins and one set of triplets.” Orrin Rice was my great-great grandfather.
Northern New England farmers had to compete with herders elsewhere. In 1876, the Bradford Opinion reported that in the Boston market “Sheep are selling at about the old figure. With full supply from the West the flocks from the North have to correspond, which is hardy satisfactory.” That week lambs were selling for 7 cents per pound.
The United Opinion of May 1887 reported that the herd of West Newbury’s W.C. and D Carleton took “the lead for heavy fleece, five of them shearing 120 pounds of wool.” Live animals, wool and meat were exported from the area to markets in the Northeast by drovers such as George Baldwin of Bradford and George Fessenden of Wells River.
Throughout the entire period, local agricultural fairs such as the Orange County Agricultural Society Fair allowed farmers to exhibit prized animals. The Vermont Phoenix of September 28, 1893 reported that the show of sheep was the largest and best ever made in [Windham] county. The article gave special praise to H. W. Keyes of North Haverhill: “Until we saw these animals we were not aware that any sheep had been bred so near perfection.”
The Orange County Gazetteer of 1888 listed 60 farmers in Thetford keeping 4,590 sheep in a variety of breeds. Newbury had 29 farmers with 3,877 sheep. Sheep raising held on in some towns such as Lyme and Piermont even as it declined in other areas of the two states. This decline was hastened by the further reduction of the tariff on foreign wool.
One of the problems faced by sheep farmers was damage to the flocks by dogs. This “plague” created a “sad havoc” on herds up and down the valley. A newspaper report in December 1877 reported that dogs killed more than twenty sheep in the herd of Mrs. H. Keyes of Newbury. Problems with dogs caused the Smith farm of South Newbury to give up their flock. Towns offered public reimbursement for damage, but it was never enough.
In 1889 C. G. Nott’s queried “What shall the New England Farmer do? He cannot compete in wool with the unhoused flocks of Texas and California, of New Zealand and Australia.” For many farmers the answer to the question was to switch to dairy cattle.
Some Vermont and New Hampshire herders continued to raise sheep, although in diminishing numbers. Agricultural census figures show the decline in number of Vermont farms and the number of sheep kept: 1920: 3,051-62,756; 1945: 793-15,459 and 1964: 388-7941. New Hampshire had small numbers of farms and animals during the same period and experienced similar declines with only 355 farms and 5,602 animals reported in 1964.
Currently, the Vermont Sheep and Goat Association reports that a number of farms keep sheep in this area. Flocks range from 6 to 650 animals and produce wool, yarn, lambskins, meat and livestock.
While these farms have a wide diversity of breeds and have farmers dedicated to their care, they represent just a mere shadow of the herds that blanketed local hills during the boom of sheep mania.