This People's History interview of Milan DeRuwe (1917-2006) on the sheep business in Eastern Washington was reprinted from The Pacific Northwesterner, Vol. 45, No. 2 (October 2002), from an issue titled "Gone Forever: The Sheepherding Life of the 1930s." It is reprinted by kind permission. The interview is adapted and condensed from an oral history recorded and transcribed by John Ellingson for the oral history collection at the Northwest Museum of Arts and Culture.
John Ellingson: Today is Wednesday, July 24, 2002. I am talking tonight with Milan DeRuwe whom I have known since 1940. I'll let you tell your experiences in the sheep business, Milan, and then I'll ask you a few questions.
Milan DeRuwe: Thank you, John. First, I would like to discuss the words "Ranch sheep business" versus the words "Range sheep business." "Ranch sheep business" is the term under which most sheep are raised in the United States today and consists of sheep raised in one or more enclosed areas such as fenced pastures or pens. They are generally smaller groups as compared to the "range sheep" industry which had larger numbers of sheep, generally over 1,000 and often 2,000 or more in one group called a "band."
It is the range sheep business I would like to talk about today even though this form of raising sheep now has mostly disappeared in the Pacific Northwest. It came into use here about 1910 after a period of "open land" sheep raising in which sheep, like cattle of the time, were turned loose to be rounded up once a year to be sheared and to separate those ready for market. They were then sold, the meat generally called "mutton."
In the "range sheep business," which came later, the sheep were kept under control by herders and dogs who lived and walked with the sheep throughout the year. From 1920 to 1950, this form of sheep raising grew to a peak period between 1930 and 1940. It rapidly decreased after World War II due to the increasing problem of moving sheep in large numbers along modern highways that now contained a large number of high-speed cars and trucks. The industry tried to move sheep by trucks or trains but this process was not cost-effective and soon was discontinued. Today most of our wool and lamb meat come from outside the United States, mainly from New Zealand and Australia.
Under the range sheep business terminology, the sheep were moved throughout the year from winter range to summer range and to harvested fall wheat, barley or pea fields, where the sheep could pick up the leftover grain and foliage.
My father, Felix DeRuwe, and I were in the range sheep business from 1932 to 1940. Also in the same business during that time were my uncles Remie DeRuwe, Jules DeRuwe, George Schiffner, my double cousin Mervin DeRuwe and my brother Dale DeRuwe. There were many others, including the McGregor Land and Livestock Company, with large operations involving many bands of sheep.
I would like to describe the things that happen in a typical range sheep business cycle throughout the calendar year. Starting in January we find the sheep on their winter range in the warmer part of the country. In our case this is on the 10,010 acre Jackson Ranch located near Dayton, Washington, and adjoining the Snake River. The ewes are now heavy with lambs and are fed extra grain in addition to their normal winter feed of bunch grass and other natural-growing foliage on the hilly land called the Snake River Breaks. January is also the time when the bands of ewes are brought into the home ranch sheds for "tagging." This was the process of removing excess greasy wool and lumps of dirt that had accumulated around the udders of the ewes that might cause distress to a new-born lamb as it was looking for its mother's milk.
By January 20th, the first lambs will have started to "drop," meaning to be born. The sheep band planned to start lambing first would then be moved from winter range to corrals and sheds. This group would then be called "the drop band" and would require both a day crew and a night crew as the lambs would be born both day and night. This required extra labor to take care of each lamb and ewe immediately after birth. During the months of February and March, lambs would be born at a steady pace. Each lamb, as it was born, would be picked up and taken to a special heated shed. We also used large tents. In most cases the ewe would readily follow her lamb as it was carried to a small catch-pen about four feet square in which only the ewe and her lamb would be kept for a period of 12 to 24 hours. This was a time of bonding for the ewe and her lamb. If the lamb was standing and able to nurse on its own and if the ewe could provide enough milk, they would then be moved out of the catch-pen into a group-pen containing five or six ewes and their lambs. Again this was a period of bonding. At this time both the ewe and the lamb would be branded with special paint that put a number, unique to that pair, on their wool.
When it was determined both the ewe and the lamb were doing well in the small-group pen, they would be moved into an even larger cluster, first to a group of 25 ewes and their lambs for a week or so, and then to groups of 100 ewes and lambs for another week. At the end of this mixing period the groups would be 500 ewes with their lambs and would be called "half bands." Before leaving the winter range for trailing to the summer range, these half bands would be formed into full bands, generally 1,500 to 2,500 animals in each band. At the time my dad and I were in the range sheep business we raised and marketed on a four full-band basis.
Not all ewes would have lambs. The 5 percent or less who were barren would be culled out before the next lambing season. In the range sheep business we often marketed over 100 percent lambs as compared to the number of ewes, because some ewes bore twins. This was done even though some lambs would be lost before the final market count.
During lambing time on our ranch, it was necessary to hire as many as eight to ten extra men in addition to the normal crew of herders and camp tenders. These men were needed to feed hay, grain, water and move sheep around, and a night drop picker had to see that each ewe and her lamb were cared for. My job was to operate a truck with a helper to see that hay and grain were at the proper place at the proper time. This meant hauling hay, generally alfalfa, from nearby hay growers. The grain was hauled from the oats, barley and/or peas growers in the Palouse area of Washington. Also during lambing time, because of the extra men, we maintained a cook house. This was a separate building complete with necessary equipment plus living quarters for a hired cook. Our cook house had a large school-type bell that would be rung for breakfast at seven, lunch at noon, and supper at six.
One of the ingenious items used on the ranch was a "Tin Dog." This was a string of loose food cans strung on a three-foot circle of heavy wire. By jingling the contraption behind the lambs, they were encouraged to move along to follow their mothers. The noise was their first experience in their herding requirement. It wasn't long before Iambs learned to be moved from one pen to another with the ewes. They would later understand the shouting of a person and learn about real dogs.
We had as many as 25 dogs on the ranch. Usually a full-band herder would have two or more dogs with him throughout the year. Often he would also have a puppy in training by following another dog. The puppy would also learn discipline from the herder. On our ranch we found the Australian Shepherd breed were the best and most reliable sheep dogs. They were a fast, medium-sized dog that could work day and night without getting tired. Those dogs not in active service were kept in an area known as "Dog Town," some distance from the main buildings on the ranch. Here each dog had his own shed, sometimes an oil barrel with one end cut out. They would also have straw as bedding and a 30-foot-long heavy wire "run" to which the normal dog chain would be fastened. The regular ration of food was a mixture of cracklings, purchased at a meatpacking plant, mixed and cooked with cracked corn or wheat.
By March the weather on the winter range would have improved and new grass could be used instead of hay and grain to feed the ewes. This meant taking half bands to other parts of the ranch. It also meant the herders now were to live in a camp wagon and prepare their own meals. At first, the covered wagons were moved by a team of horses. In later years we used pickups or trucks to move the camp wagons from place to place on the ranch. Only once did I personally take a camp wagon drawn by a team of horses trailing the sheep all the way from the winter range some 150 miles to the summer range. That was a hectic trip for a 20-year-old kid.
April on the sheep ranch meant most of the lambs had been born and the several half bands were now away from the home ranch sheds. April also meant shearing season. The actual shearing of the sheep was done by a traveling sheep-shearing firm that would come to the ranch with their complete sheep-shearing outfit. The date would have been determined earlier as the shearing crew moved from one sheep ranch to another. This was a busy time for us, as the sheep bands had to be scheduled into the shearing plant. The lambs were separated from the ewes who were sheared and then returned to their lambs. A shearing crew containing six to eight shearers using electrical equipment could shear all our sheep in less than a week. In the earlier years the shearing crews used gasoline engines powered a long shaft arrangement, and clippers received power from the shaft. Once the wool was removed from the sheep, it was tied into an individual fleece with heavy twine and put into a wool sack much like a regular grain sack except it was eight feet long and three feet wide. The end of the each sack was then sewed up, and the wool was hauled by truck to Portland. There these sacks were loaded aboard a ship headed for Boston. At that time the Boston market established the price. In later years a wool buyer would come to the ranch to buy the wool directly.
By early May the winter range would be drying up. It was time to begin trailing the sheep 150 miles to the mountain range located north of St. Maries, Idaho. The half bands would now be joined into full bands. By the 10th of May we would have our four separate full bands on the state and county roads and headed for the mountains. It would take 25 to 30 days to make that trip, each band with a camp wagon, a herder and his dogs, plus extra helpers. A camp tender would then follow the sheep, cook the meals, plan the stopping points and take the responsibility of managing the venture. During those days, 1935 to 1940, there were few cars on the roads, the fields were generally fenced and the grass and brush along the roads were plentiful. Being the first band over a road meant more feed than later bands on that road. In our case, the route to the mountains took us to Dodge Station, to the Central Ferry bridge, and on to a point near Dusty. From Dusty there were several different routes going through the Palouse wheat farms and on to St. Maries, Idaho.
While trailing sheep, sometimes it was possible to find a farmer's lane that had woven wire on each side making a corral situation for the night, at which time one person could sleep at one end of the lane while the camp wagon would be at the other end of the lane. Generally such a perfect situation was not available and the sheep spent the night on some vacant land adjoining the road. This meant all hands had to be watchful to see that the sheep did not wander off. Sometimes it was even necessary to guard the sheep by taking turns during the night, especially if there was a grain field nearby to entice the sheep. Trailing sheep to the mountains was a daily adventure in which the sheep would travel six to eight miles a day, with each day posing different problems. The herders and helpers walked behind the sheep with their dogs. When necessary, to keep the sheep from straying off the road into farmers' fields, someone would have to walk beside the flock. Often this job would be done by a trained dog who would chase the errant sheep back onto the road.
Meanwhile the camp wagon would follow behind the sheep. This wagon was generally a canvas-covered affair much like the covered wagons used by settlers in the late 1800s when they moved west. These sheep wagons were generally mounted on car chassis with pneumatic rubber tires. We had one sheep wagon mounted on a truck chassis that had hard rubber tires. The wagons were usually pulled by a pickup or a truck, although one year I drove a team of horses all the way from the winter range to the summer range behind a band of sheep. This trip from one range to the other usually took from 25 to 30 days if not longer.
During the period of 1935 to 1940, because there were fewer cars on the narrow gravel roads and they traveled much slower than today's traffic, it was possible to simply escort the occasional cars through the sheep. Somehow drivers of that day did not mind waiting for sheep to pass or having to be taken through the band. As the sheep moved northward, the food along the road would turn from the dried-up winter range type to the more lush feed along the roads of the Palouse country. By the time the sheep arrived at the mountain range a month later, the snow would be gone from the mountains and the sheep then fed on the brush of the area instead of the grasses of the mountain range. Also in the trailing of sheep in those days we found most farmers fenced their land, often with woven sheep-tight fences, but generally using only three strands of barbed wire. Today's farms have fewer fences because they raise fewer animals. Also the farm of today uses land for crops that are planted closer to the paved road, resulting in much less sheep feed along the roads. It would be impossible to control a band of sheep along the roads of today, with their narrow shoulders and high-speed traffic.
In those days, the normal pattern of a trailing sheep was to walk up the center of the road until she found she could feed on new grass. She then would turn right or left and begin to feed. When she became aware that the other sheep had passed her by and she was the last one feeding, she would again walk up the middle of the road to the front of the band to find fresh feed. The sheep would go round and round in this pattern all day long. When your band was the first over a stretch of road, the feeding would be good. If other bands had taken the same route days earlier, the feed available would be less desirable.
Our summer range north of St. Maries, near Medimont, Idaho, was a combination of private land, federal land, state land, county land and sometimes Indian land. Much of it had been homesteaded and timber removed. Often the land had been returned to the county when the homesteaders failed to pay taxes. We leased most of the summer range. However in later years we bought parcels of land. Most of the area was steep, mountainous land and covered with brush. This was usable for sheep range but not for cattle that require grass instead of brush. Our best sheep feed was a low-growing brush named "buck brush" but sheep feed on a large variety of brush. As the summer became hotter, the sheep had to be moved ever higher in the mountains to find fresh brush that had not yet dried out. Once an area had been grazed by the sheep, it was not used again until the next year so as to allow the brush to rejuvenate to its former leaf structure. Ranch sheep, by contrast, live on grasses the year around while the range sheep turn to brush feed during the summer months. Our summer range for four bands of sheep, consisting of 4,000 ewes and their lambs, needed up to 25,000 acres of this mountainous land for grazing purposes.
Because the summer range was mountainous, the camp tender no longer could use the camp wagons and must turn to saddle and pack horses to move the herders' camps. We would have a saddle horse and three pack horses to move camps to these inaccessible places way back in the mountains. This meant the herders would then live in tents for the summer and cook their own meals.
When the sheep had fed off an area near the herder's tent, the camp tender would move the camp to a new site that provided fresh feed for the sheep. Meanwhile the camp wagons were left at a site near the end of a usable road. This would be the headquarters from which the camp tenders would pick up supplies by pack horses to take to the herder's camps. The camp tenders would use a car or pickup to re-supply the headquarters.
Range sheep, like most animals, require salt in addition to their feed. Sheep salt was purchased in 50-pound sacks of granulated salt and was made available to the sheep all year around. On the winter range this was done by using small troughs near their supply of water. On the summer range this salt had to be hauled from the headquarters camp to the sheep by pack horses; the sheep being fed salt about once a week. Often the salt was put into small pockets of space that had been chopped out of a fallen log or the salt would be placed in rocky ground where sheep would not trample it while feeding on the salt. Each sheep needs only a small taste of the salt to satisfy its needs. A 50-pound sack would last about one week for each band of sheep.
By the first of August those lambs born in February and March were now full grown and some of them would be available for market. At this time those lambs reaching 70 to 90 pounds in weight would be separated from their mothers and sent to market. In our case, this meant trailing the lambs 30 miles to St. Maries to be loaded on railroad double-decked sheep cars with 250 lambs to a car and shipped to market. During the 1935 to 1940 era, the main market was in Chicago, although sometimes the lambs could be sold at South St. Paul. Getting the lambs from St. Maries to market is another story for another time.
Meanwhile the ewes and the remaining lambs would be returned to their mountain ranges. During the first part of September, the rest of the lambs would be taken to market, leaving only the ewes in the bands. Shortly thereafter, these ewes would be on the trail to the stubble fields for the breeding season. At this time the packhorse tending of herders' camps ended and the camp tender returned to the camp wagon process because he would again use roads to follow the sheep.
The breeding season for the ewes would start near the middle of September in order for lambs to be born by the first of February of the following year. The ewes would now be in the lush grain fields of the Tekoa, Oakesdale, St. John, Colfax areas of Washington. Here wheat, barley, oats, and pea fields had been harvested by the farmers but there was much grain available to the sheep as well as old and new growths of grass and other foliage. In those days, the inefficient harvesting equipment and the old-style grain left much feed for the sheep. The newly developed grains such as short-stem wheat and new types of harvesting equipment would not leave the amount of lost grain feed we had in the 1930 to 1940 period. During these stubble-field months, we moved from one grain field to another, often a ranch that was nearer to the winter range. These grain fields were generally leased from the farmer on a "cents per day per head of sheep" such as one-half cent to one cent per day per head or on a flat fee of five to ten dollars per band per day.
The breeding of the ewes meant the bucks (rams) needed to be brought to the bands by truck. These bucks had been on special pastures near the winter range all summer. Now they were ready for work. We figured one buck could service 60 to 75 ewes during the breeding season. Because the ewes were now gaining weight in the grain fields, they were more receptive to the desires of the bucks, meaning there would be more twin lambs in the spring. The breeding season often meant the sheep's requirement for water was not always available at the grain farm. This meant the camp tender would have to supply the water for the sheep using a 1,000-gallon tank mounted on a truck to fill six to eight metal watering troughs each day.
By the first of November it was necessary to start for the winter range, also known as the "home range," and by the middle of November we were there. In our part of the country, Southeastern Washington, fall rains would bring on green grass even though winter weather had set in in the northern parts of the state. When fall rains did not come and/or the weather became colder, it was necessary to feed grain to the sheep. Generally we did not have to add hay unless we received severe cold weather with snow. In any case the ewes, now getting heavy with lamb, must be kept in good condition to facilitate their readiness to give birth in the next month or two. At this time of the year the camp tender became a truck driver hauling oats, barley, and peas from the warehouses in the Palouse country and alfalfa hay from ranches in the Dayton/Walla Walla areas.
By January 1st, we sheep ranchers would have completed a full cycle in the life of a sheep, all done in one calendar year. By contrast, in the case of cattle, a complete cycle of breeding, calving and selling of the offspring takes two years or more to complete. In one year in the range sheep business you were ready to start all over again by January 1st.
JE: Milan, I appreciate all you've told me about a year's cycle for the sheep, but there are a few details I would like to clear up. We always like to get the full names of any people involved and as much additional information as possible. Could you tell us anything more about your father, Felix DeRuwe, and any other DeRuwe relatives who may have come over from Belgium and were in the sheep business. Also, what about your mother and her family?
MD: In addition to my father, my uncles were Remie and Julius DeRuwe. As they got older, the second generation came along and the big persons in the second generation were Mervin DeRuwe and my brother Dale DeRuwe. That's all on the DeRuwe side. My mother was Anna Schiffner DeRuwe, and her brother, George Schiffner, my uncle, also ran sheep.
JE: Do you know where your parents were born?
MD: Yes. My father was born in Belgium near Brugge in 1884. The town he came from was called Westcappella. Dad came to this country in 1904. The reason he came that year was because he was 20 years old. At that age, he had to draw his number for the Belgian military. If he drew an even number, he had to go into the military. If he drew an odd number, he was free. Dad knew from Belgian tradition that the farm on which he was raised would go to the oldest son, and he wasn't the oldest son. So when he turned 20 and didn't have to go into the military, there was no option for him to make a living in Belgium, so he immigrated to the United States. He came through Ellis Island and later was naturalized. He had to have a sponsor before he could come into the States. An uncle, T. A. Van Hollebeke, lived in Walla Walla, Washington, and agreed to sponsor him. He got him a job as a sheepherder back in the Blue Mountains above Walla Walla. That is how Dad ended up interested in the sheep business.
JE: He was working with his uncle?
MD: Yes. Meanwhile Dad's older brother Remie, who came to America before him by a year or two, had been sponsored by the same uncle. Another brother, Jules, who came a couple of years later, was also sponsored by the same uncle; therefore, there were three DeRuwe brothers who came here from Belgium, and they all wound up in the sheep business at one time or another. Later they went their separate ways and were into other businesses. My double cousin, Mervin DeRuwe, stayed with the sheep business until well after World War II. He stayed with it as he had a big range sheep business. Our being double cousins was brought about by two Belgian brothers marrying two American sisters. Mervin and Milan, double cousins, were both in the sheep business at the same time.
JE: In Belgium, did your father's parents have a farm?
MD: Yes. They were farmers, but those farms were small compared to farms here. Their specialty was big Belgian horses. When I went to visit them in Belgium right after the war, the first thing they did was to show me their big horses and their beautiful Holstein cows; then they took me to the house. The important thing to them was their Belgian horses and their cows. Incidentally, the cows were milk cows but the boys, my cousins, didn't milk cows. They were told man's hands are too rough! The girls in the family were the ones who milked the cows because they had nice, soft hands. When I went to visit them they were still on the old home farm. The oldest son was the one that would inherit the farm, and he is still on the farm. He will pass it down on to his oldest son. The rest of the family has to go find something else.
JE: We want to talk a little bit about your mother. Where was she from?
MD: My mother, Anna Schiffner DeRuwe, was of German ancestry. Her grandmother, her mother and father came over from Germany in 1884. They came over in a group. We read from history that the German people were having problems and had banded together. The Russian government had told them years before that if they would move as a group, a couple hundred of them, into the Ukraine area of Russia, they would be given farms. This German group moved to Russia but they became bound up into more or less a stockade. The Russians did not come through with their promises. Grandma tells the story that in the middle of the night the whole group pulled out from the Ukraine, moved into Austria, and eventually back into Germany. They then went north through Germany to Bremerhaven and shipped out from there to the United States.
JE: So they were Germans from Russia?
MD: Yes, they were Germans who had gone to Russia but never became Russians. They moved to Kansas to a place called Lehigh. In Kansas all went well until they ran into some dry weather and lost their crops. They then moved westward again. Everybody in those days would go west. They wound up in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, south of Portland, but the land then was taken up by homesteading. They stayed there only one year and then moved up into the Walla Walla area where they were able to get homestead land. My mother was born in Waitsburg, Washington, near Walla Walla.
JE: When was your mother born?
MD: My mother was born in 1899 and she passed away in 1985.
JE: She was somewhat younger than your father?
MD: Oh, yes. She was 15 years younger. They got along fine. There was no problem, except over my education.
MD: Coming from Germany, they were Lutheran. This was after the Reformation. Dad coming from Belgium was Catholic, so all their lives they had this Catholic-Protestant situation. They had an agreement between them that they were not going to force the kids to do what they didn't want to do. They wanted the kids to make up their own minds We wound up being Protestants.
JE: How large a ranch did your father own there near Dayton?
MD: He rented the land. It was 10,010 acres. That was the winter range. It was known as the Jackson Ranch, managed then by George Jackson.
JE: He did own some property though, didn't he?
MD: At that time, no. At Colville earlier, he had owned a ranch. This was back in the late twenties. The time I have been talking about now was from 1932 to the 1940s. Prior to that, we lived up at Colville and had a farm and a small band of sheep.
JE: Then you raised sheep at Colville, too, on your farm there?
MD: It was a smaller sheep business, just a one-band situation.
JE: Could you add some details to what you covered in the first article about how your dad lost his farm and then got into the sheep business?
MD: Dad had bought the ranch and thought he was doing well. Of course he was making payments on it. He owned horses and cattle and he had a band of sheep. He had all the things that you need, big barns, a big house, and all the necessary equipment. The Depression came along and I can still remember the day in 1932 when Dad came home from town and he said, "The banker tells me I'm broke. I owe more money on the land than all the horses, cows, sheep, and equipment that we have. If we sell it all, we might still owe money." The result was that we had an auction sale in 1932 and sold horses for five dollars a head. We sold cows in order to pay what bills we could. The crowning blow came when Dad sold one hundred tons of hay for one hundred dollars. Can you imagine a hundred tons of hay for a hundred dollars? Not only that but we had to sell it to a cattleman. Those were Depression Days!!
At that time, Dad said, "I'm 48 years old. All I have to show for the first 48 years of my life is a wife, two kids, an old Hupmobile car and a good reputation." Thank goodness, along about that time came the NRA, National Recovery Act, with its various sub-sections. One of the subsections was a program that they would finance a good farmer 100 percent in his chosen field to get started again. Dad had a good reputation through the sale of everything that he had. He was able to pay all his bills.
With this 100 per cent loan, he was approved to buy a band of 1,100 two-year-old ewes. This purchase was from Stanley Coffin at Othello. Mr. Coffin sold him the sheep, but he had 100 percent guarantee from the government. It was Mother, Dad, and I who went after those sheep. My brother was younger. He stayed with friends at Colville. All we had was that Hupmobile car and a couple of sheep dogs. We had a big box on the front of the car. That was our food container. Mother and Dad slept in the car and fixed the front seat so that it fell backwards. I slept on a sleeping bag outside. We picked up that band of sheep and trailed them to Coulee City where our lambing range would be. That first year was tough getting started after being completely broke.
There were many homesteads in the Coulee City area that had been abandoned. Dad knew about them. Dad knew about an area there in which there where there were abandoned homesteads up on top of the wall just out of Coulee City. Mother, Dad and I started lambing out those sheep. We had to hire one extra person at that time to help us with lambing. After lambing we started the band to the mountain range. Mother pulled the camp wagon with a pickup and Dad and I herded the sheep. We headed towards Colville where our summer range was to be. There again Dad knew where there was some open range.
There's a story that goes along with that. We were trailing near Colville when the sheriff came calling on us. We had stopped at noon and the sheep were all on the side of the road. The sheriff says, "Your sheep are bedded down on county land. A cattle man down the road is complaining." Dad had to go into Colville. When he got into town, he found that his old friend Judge Lon Johnson was there hearing his case. Dad knew Lon Johnson pretty well because we had lived at Colville. Lon Johnson said, "Where do you want to keep your sheep this summer?" Dad said, "I want to go up towards Aladdin up on Gillette Mountain." Judge Johnson then took out one of those Metzger maps and put it on the table showing that a lot of abandoned county land was up there. He says, "Where do you want to pasture?" Dad said, "I want this section and that section and that section up here." The judge says, "All right then, I now fine you twenty dollars for pasturing your sheep on Section 2, Section 4, Section 8 and others." He gave us our complete summer range. Headlines in the local Colville Index paper the next day said, "Sheep man fined for being on county land." We got a whole summer range for 20 dollars. That's the way we had to get through the Depression. Later on we moved to the bigger Jackson Ranch. That's where we spread out to four bands and it became a bigger sheep outfit.
JE: Was your sheep wagon drawn by horses?
MD: Yes. At one time I took a team of horses and a sheep wagon all the way from Jackson Ranch to St. Maries. In later years we used pickups and trucks.
JE: With a camper-style on it?
MD: Yes, much like Conestoga wagons but smaller. The old pioneer covered wagons were on wooden wheels but our camp wagons were built on old car chassis and had rubber tires. We did have one big camp wagon that had hard rubber tires under it.
JE: Did the sheepherder ride a horse?
MD: No. He always walked. The sheepherder never had a horse. Even in the summer range or the winter range or going to or from the mountains, they were always walking. The only horses involved were used by the camp tender on the summer range. We would have a saddle horse and three pack horses to move camps to these inaccessible places way back in the mountains.
JE: Who was the cook?
MD: The cook was the person who pulled the camp wagon whether he had horses or whether he had a pickup or truck. He was also the person who would go ahead and find a good place to camp for the night. In the fall of the year, he would go ahead and find and rent the stubble fields.
JE: One camp cook was used for all four bands?
MD: No. Each herder was his own cook in the camp wagon outfit.
JE: You kept your bands separated?
MD: Yes, they were separated. Back in the mountains you would have to move around from these camps. When you talk about a mountain range, you are talking about 15 or 20 or more sections, a vast amount of land.
JE: You paid a fee to the Forest Service or to whoever owned the land?
MD: Yes and no. Some of it we owned. Some of it was open land. Some of it we rented from a lumber company. In one area, we rented land from the Nez Perce Indian Reservation. We had to go to Nezperce, Idaho, and work through the Indians to get a certain section of land. Some sheep outfits did have Forest Service permits. In our case, we had to work our own mountain range and had a variety of deals.
JE: What breed were the sheep?
MD: The sheep were White Face ewes. They were what wool buyers called three-eighths. That means fine wool versus coarse wool. A coarse wool sheep would be one like a Lincoln or a sheep that has long wool. A real short wool sheep would be something like a Marino. Ours was somewhere in between. They were then bred to a Black-Face buck. The Black-Face buck were generally Hampshires or Shropshires. The reason why is that they would throw a lamb that would mature earlier so you could get that complete cycle in in one year. We found out the Hampshire turned out to be the best one of the bunch because they threw out bigger lambs. Nowadays the ranch sheep are either White Face of Black Face, although some ranchers are now going to some few exotic breeds.
JE: How many sheepherders would be working for your dad?
MD: We had both sheepherders and helpers in the spring when we had to have the cook house. At that time, the cook would have to cook for as many as 15 men. We also had a bunk house at the peak of the lambing season. We would back off until we had only four herders and two camp tenders.
JE: You would have a payroll of six or so?
MD: Yes, the year around but in the spring of the year you needed more plus the fact you had to have a cook. You also had to have hired people to haul hay for you.
JE: Were there any Basque herders who worked for you?
MD: Yes, but very few. The Basque people stayed in southern Idaho and southern Oregon. In southern Oregon there was a whole town of Basques. Once in a while we got a Basque herder but for the general employment our herders came out of Spokane. Back on Trent Avenue there used to be a tavern that acted as a sheep man's employment agency.
JE: A hiring hall?
MD: A hiring hall, yes. It was nothing more than one of the taverns there. The sheepherders when they had finished spending all their money would wind up at this tavern and the tavern keeper would then say, "I got a call from some sheep man and he wants a herder. They would then hire out as a herder for that employer. In those days we were hiring people at a dollar a day, plus board and room. They generally brought their own bedding.
JE: Were there any Department of Agriculture or other inspectors around?
MD: Not in those days. You had inspectors but not from what you're thinking of. The inspectors we had were with the PCA, Production Credit Corp. This was one of the subsidiaries of the NRA. The PCA would have a man in the field. Remember we were getting a 100 percent loan. The PCA man was around here to see that you were doing the job and that you were real sincere about being a successful sheep man. Also the PCA man would then go with you to the bank. The bank and you would sit down and spell out a budget. You would tell the banker, "I am going to need so many tons of hay this winter. I'm going to need this. I'm going to need a new pickup." You worked that way out until you got on your feet. The first year, the PCA man was around as I remember once a month. He would actually come up to the camps and he talked to see what your men looked like and how they were taken care of. However, there was no such thing as environmental people snooping around. We didn't work with the Bureau of Land Management very much.
JE: Did you know the McGregor sheep family?
MD: Oh, yes. McGregor was just across the Palouse River from us. We knew them quite well. They were a bigger outfit. I knew Alec McGregor well and have the book he wrote on the sheep business. Can you imagine? Here is a man that grew up on the sheep ranch, went to college, wrote this book as his master's thesis. Jock McRae was his foreman. I used to correspond with Alec McGregor. At one time I was in partnership with my uncle on the Jaussaud Ranch and the McGregor outfit was just across the Palouse from us. The McGregors worked out of Hooper, Washington. Now they are in the fertilizer and cattle business.
JE: What about the Harder family?
MD: Jake Harder, they were cattle people. They were farther north, working out of Sprague. Jake Harder owned half of Lincoln County at one time. The Harder Ranch probably still owns that much.
JE: Did the cattle people ever give you any trouble?
MD: No, they never did.
JE: How did you get your sheep across the rivers?
MD: When we were at the Jackson Ranch, we crossed the Snake River at the Central Ferry Bridge. My cousin did use the Lyons Ferry at the confluence of the Palouse and Snake rivers near Starbuck. We used the bridge called Central Ferry and that was the old Central Ferry. Incidentally, when you cross the new Central Ferry Bridge, you look up there and see a sign that says "The Elmer C. Huntley Central Ferry Bridge." Huntley was a cousin of my wife Bernadine and later head of the Washington State Highway Department.
JE: Did you ever cross your sheep over the Columbia?
MD: No, but my cousin did.
JE: Did you raise your sheep for meat or for wool?
MD: It was both. When we went to New Zealand in 1985, we found some sheep raisers were just for wool. For us, meat was the big thing. We shipped the lambs to market. We also sold the wool. Wool was put up in big sacks eight feet long and loaded on a truck cross-ways and were trucked to Portland. At Portland the sacks were put on board a ship and they would end up in Boston. Boston at that time was the main wool market, near where all the textile mills were located.
JE: What were the hazards to sheep?
MD: Range predators, the weather, and disease. On the winter range the big problem in those days were coyotes as far as predators were concerned. In the mountains it was bear. They would get into a band of sheep and they would kill a sheep and open the stomach and eat only the contents of the stomach. They didn't seem interested in the meat. The bear is primarily a vegetable-eating animal. People get the misunderstanding that they were eating meat.
As far as diseases were concerned, we did run into some diseases especially with lambs; one we called stiff-lamb disease. Washington State College helped us out with that. Another disease we had was foot-rot when the corrals were wet and dirty. When we found foot-rot, we corrected that by putting gravel on the ground instead of the sheep walking around in the mud. You were always fighting the weather. The big thing on weather was right after shearing. The sheep had lost their wool. If you got a streak of cold weather, they would then start to shake because it was too cold for them without their winter coats. They would start running and would run until they would find a draw somewhere out of the wind.
JE: Did the sheep ever get lost?
MD: Yes, sheep were always getting lost in the mountains. We tried to count our sheep every few weeks and that is a job in itself. I like to tell people that there's no problem counting if you would just lie on your stomach and let the sheep run by you. Then you count all the legs and divide by four! In the mountains we always had to devise ways of counting sheep. On the winter range we did the same thing often taking them to home corrals. Herders had two methods of keeping track of the sheep. One of them was to count the black sheep. You knew how many black sheep there were in the band. If you had eight black sheep in your band and there were only seven counted you knew that you had lost some sheep. The second method was to count the sheep wearing bells. There would be six to 10 and the herder knew the sound of each bell. Then he would know that such and such a bell was missing and he would start out looking especially in the brushy mountains. When he found that they were away, he would get help to hunt for sheep. If you were in doubt, you rigged up a corral situation and actually counted them.
JE: Were there ever rustlers?
MD: We never had much trouble with the rustlers except with the Indians. Once in a while they would like to take one or two. When you were trailing into the mountains, you would trail up through the Indian Reservation and watch real carefully.
JE: Tell a little more about the sheepherders and what they were like.
MD: Sheepherders were pretty much uneducated people. They were people who had been born and raised on a ranch and never gone far in school but who were dedicated. They would work day and night to protect the sheep. I know of no other industry that has such dedicated people as those sheepherders were. They would work tirelessly following the sheep up and down the hills. If any sheep were lost, they were out to get them. Once a year or oftener, they had to go to town. When they went to town, there seemed only two things they were looking for. That was drink and women. When they ran out of drink and out of money, they were back in the hiring hall looking for another job. Almost without exception, this is the case. The drink got to them.
JE: Could you tell us some stories about the sheep business?
MD: Yes, there's lots of stories. When I was a kid, one of the things they used to do at shearing time was to have me, as a young person, tramping wool in those great big sacks. They'd leave me down in the bottom of the sack and would go for lunch. I couldn't get out. There were not many humorous incidents. ...
JE: When you decided to go to college, how did Dale feel about taking your place?
MD: He felt all right about it. As a matter of fact, after Dad retired and sold out, Dale went to work for my uncle George Schiffner and became his partner. After that, it was about the end of the range sheep business. He and Uncle George parted company and Dale went into the dairy business. He later went into the real estate business.
JE: Did Dale ever go to college?
MD: No. Dale never did go to college. He finished high school at Dayton and the military caught up with him. He was in the Marines and in battles of the islands towards Japan. He had a pretty rough time. He was in motor transport. He never did go back into the sheep business either.
JE: How long did your father stay in the sheep business?
MD: Dad retired when he was 65. He turned the Jackson Ranch over to my double cousin Florence DeRuwe Harding, and her husband John. Right now the ranch is being operated by Mervin De Ruwe's son Raymond. They have plowed up about half the ranch and are now making more money off the ranch than when we were there with range sheep. Now they have those new combines with levelers on them. They're farming the hillsides up there that we would never have thought of. Our old home range is now half grain and half cattle. My father passed away at 69. That's the reason I retired at 60. I wanted to get more than four years in retirement. I now have 25 years in retirement.
JE: Where was your wife from?
MD: Here in Spokane. Her maiden name was Sawins. She was part of the Huntley family on her mother's side. I tell a lot about her in my book Who Were Milan and Bernie?: the Journals of Milan DeRuwe.
JE: At WSC [Washington State College], what was your fraternity like?
MD: It was great. I learned a lot from that fraternity house, Phi Kappa Tau. I was a green farmer kid who came to town and was mingling with those kids from the big cities. I learned that I was not a drinking man. I never did smoke. I did not drink. I found a lot of those people did both. I learned other things from them too.
JE: Were there drinking bashes at WSC in those days?
MD: No. There were not at that time. We didn't have any such trouble. It wasn't just fraternities. It could be anybody. The media has told us that it is the fraternity houses that are doing that but don't you believe it.
JE: A lot of the fellow students with you were working their way through college, weren't they?
MD: It seems there were at least half of them who were working their way through college. My wife Bernie waited tables at South Hall. For that, she received her meals. She also did secretarial work. That's the way she got through college. Her folks paid for the tuition. From then on, it was pretty much up to her.
JE: Do you remember any particular professors or other college influences on your future life?
MD: Yes. Dr. Guthrie had sponsored me. When I came back from the army, he had already entered me at Harvard for an MBA. However, I did not pursue it. I was 30 years old at the time and I wasn't about to do more studying. He also got me a job at Washington State. I taught Statistics for one semester, teaching the mechanical part of statistics. My wife Bernie taught a class in typing. Dr. Guthrie, Dr. Hefflebauer, and Dr. Dummier were the three I remember the best. I also knew Dr. Bill Dent Jr. Dent and DeRuwe were names that were together all during Basic Training and at Fort Benning, Georgia, during our army careers.
JE: So you went into Advanced ROTC?
MD: Yes. At that time, everybody wanted to get into Advanced ROTC because it kept them out of the military draft. There were 200 or more students at WSC that applied for that program. See my book on this subject: Who Were Milan and Bernie; the Journals of Milan DeRuwe. It's all discussed there.
I'd like to tell you about something that happened when I was herding sheep on the range back in 1937. In those days it was common to meet herds of 1,200 to 2,000 sheep being trailed along the roadways from winter range in southeast Washington to the high country of Idaho for summer pasture. The process was reversed in the fall of the year after the lambs had been taken from their mothers and been sold. The remaining ewes were ready to start the cycle again with breeding in the early fall and lambing in the early spring.
The normal cycle called for stops along the way from summer ranges to fatten up the ewes in the lush grain fields of Eastern Washington at which time the ewes were met by truckloads of rams brought in for breeding purposes. Since the rams had been separated from the ewes for the past 10 months, joining the two brought about predictable action that meant that lambs would be born at the proper time the next spring.
This particular fall, cousin Roy and I were trailing a band of breeding ewes down a dirt road to the stubble fields near the town of Farmington. As night approached, we found a farmer's lane in which to camp with the sheep for the night, a lane with woven sheep-tight fencing on both sides. It made a perfect corral with the camp wagon parked at one end and Roy sleeping at the other.
As we finished our supper in the camp wagon, a high harvest moon came up. It was then that we noticed across the fence in the pastureland a small band of Karakul sheep that consisted of ten black ewes and one big black ram. Karakul sheep were common in this area in 1937 because women's coats made of Karakul skins were fashionable. We were particularly impressed by the big, black ram as he paced inside of the fence, smelling and grunting at all of those white breeding ewes. He obviously had not been satisfied serving just his own little flock. Being curious souls, Roy and I wondered what would happen if we were to catch Mr. Ram and take him across the fence to those 1,400 breeding ewes. We wasted no time in doing just that and were not surprised to find the black ram going right to work. During the moonlit night, as we checked our band, we could see he was still working. It was just turning daylight when we again caught a tired black ram and put him back across the fence. In short order we were again trailing our herd down the road. The next day, trucks arrived with the regular white rams and the official breeding season began. Roy and I did not explain to Dad that we had started the season a day early.
It was next spring before we thought much of our project, but it was brought into sharp focus when Dad came to dinner one night and reported an unusual happening -- the first lamb of the season was a black one, black and very curly! Dad considered the event good luck, especially as black lambs normally occur only once in every 200 births. The next day, Dad was even more excited. The second lamb born was also black and curly. How could that be? Shortly thereafter, white lambs began to appear, but there were certainly more blacks than usual. Roy and I had a hard time keeping our secret.
Dad never did find out how it happened. Before the lambing season was over, there were 42 black lambs when normally we would expect five. The black ram had accounted for 37. Not bad for a one-night stand, right?
Note: This article is part of Cultivating Washington, The History of Our State’s Food, Land, and People, which includes more agriculture-related content, vidoes, and curriculum.