Rabbitbrush Rambler: Counting sheep

Looking at some of today’s communities, it’s hard to imagine the influence that sheep once had on their economies a century ago. With changes in the products that are sold to consumers today, it’s also hard to imagine the millions of pounds of wool that Philadelphia’s and New England’s mills manufactured to make carpets and other products between the 1880s and World War II. Nationally, the number of sheep, which peaked in the 1940s, is about one-eighth as large today, with California, Texas, Colorado, and Wyoming having the most in descending number.

We still can see warehouses at Antonito and La Jara, where pelts and bags of fleece were delivered in carts, wagons, and, later, trucks and shipped out of the Valley on the D&RG’s rails. We might not have flamboyant castles of great tycoons here, but we see a few instances of affluence like the hand-painted murals in the Warshauer Mansion at Antonito or the J. Luis Rivera memorial in Capulin’s cemetery.

In the San Luis Valley, sheep and the wool they produced were an essential part of daily life in Hispanic homes and in the economy. Herding and shearing, wool processing and weaving had been essential activities in Hispanic life, and bartering goods and services was a normal part of life.

Settlers had begun to move onto grants in northern New Mexico around Espanola and the Chama River Valley by the late 1700s and then onto land grants in the San Luis Valley by the mid-1800s, bringing with them their traditions from one generation to the next, although activities changed somewhat with climate and natural resources.

People with much different traditions, material possessions, and desires also were arriving, though.      After the Mexican-American War, there soon were military posts, trading posts, and Indian agencies in outlying areas such as the Chama River Valley and the San Luis Valley, and stores also appeared. Some stores like San Luis’s belonged to early Spanish-speaking colonists like Dario Gallegos, but others belonged to newcomers who were Anglos or other northern Europeans with a knack for making money. As they bartered sheep for goods, some of the store keepers also acquired sheep and land titles when owners fell too behind in their accounts.

Another part of the system was partido, a way of gambling on increase of flocks. In essence the process consisted of a herder’s borrowing a certain number of animals from a patron or banker or store owner and then receiving more or fewer sheep, depending on the increase or loss during the season, a system that could result in the herder’s ending up in debt.

Two of the best known successful figures were storekeeper T.D. Burns in New Mexico’s Tierra Amarilla area and Frank Bond and Son at Espanola, who made enough money in the mercantile and banking businesses to build a mansion that still stands. Antonito had its banker-sheepman Fred Warshauer and owners of stores like Sargent’s that also owned sheep.

Not all who prospered were Anglos. J. Luis Rivera, a rancher with flocks and land in both the Chama River Valley and the San Luis Valley, is remembered as a banker in La Jara who drove to town with sheep in the back seat of his Lincoln sedan.

Another story is that of Luis Montoya of Del Norte, whose flocks increased while he had an agreement to herd Ute Chief Ouray’s large flocks.

Many owners were farmers and ranchers who lived in the Valley but sent flocks to the high country in summer. The Whites of Carnero Canyon herded theirs far into the high country almost to Silverton. Or a family might camp in a cabin all summer in an area like Wolf Creek Pass. Or Anglo ranchers might hire Mexican sheepherders to tend flocks in the South San Juans while their Gringo cowboys tended cattle in the lower areas.

The narrow-gauge Denver & Rio Grande played an important part in the sheep industry. The Chili Line, as the railroad extension between Antonito and Espanola was called, once carried thousands of sheep to market from around San Antonio Mountain and from a shipping point called Servilleta, between Tres Piedras and Taos Junction until 1940. Thousands more came from pens at Osier on the east side of Cumbres Pass on the D&RG’s San Juan Extension. The cars for sheep were double-deckers.

But weather and economic conditions put many of the small sheep owners out of business, and a big blizzard in the 1930s finished some who could no longer pay off their debts at the store and the bank.