Casper museum highlights Wyo’s sheep industryWritten by Christy Hemken
The effort to construct new exhibits relating to prominent industries in Natrona County began in 2005 with a grant to the museum and funding approved by the City Council for a museum addition.
“The museum called together people in the community, oil and gas and agriculture to decide on the subjects and industries to be featured,” says Jackie. “After that was decided they approached people within those industries, and they asked us to organize the sheep exhibit.”
That led to an article in the Roundup, which generated responses for the Ellises from people from Gillette to Kaycee to Wheatland and Bill.
LJ Turner of Campbell County donated a ball bearing shearing machine from 1909, accompanied by its brochure. “It’s a two-man operation,” says Pinky. “One guy turned the crank to supply the power and the other guy shore the sheep.”
Turner also donated an early 1900s wool sacking frame, which was too big to fit in the Fort Caspar and it now resides at the Kaycee Hoofprints of the Past Museum. “It’s one of those things you have to see to appreciate,” says Pinky. “Today they use trailers with hydraulic packing equipment, but this was a sturdily built frame that worked well, and everything was manual labor.”
In addition to the old-time sheep equipment many people also donated historic photos relating to the sheep industry, including one by Wyoming photographer Charles Belden. Another photo of sheep crossing Rock Creek belonged to Pinky’s mother, and she had it colorized around 1930.
A sheepwagon anchors the exhibit, and it was donated by the Cooper’s 7L Ranch.
“Vi Goodrich of Wheatland told us about something I’d never heard of, let alone seen,” says Pinky. “It’s a lamb warmer, and it looks like an oversized mailbox. It’s got a floor in it with holes, and a tray filled with hot charcoal can be slid in the bottom to heat the box and they’d shove the lambs in there.”
Goodrich told the Ellises that the lamb warmers had become a sort of cottage industry in the Rock River area. “They built them by the hundreds and sold them to local sheep outfits, and they were really quite efficient at keeping animals alive,” says Pinky.
Earl and Jewell Reed, who live near Bill, invited the Ellises to their place, where they were given a hootenanny, a cured sheep pelt and a sheep bell.
“The hootenanny has a pointed end that’s jammed into the ground and the other end is held onto and there’s a place to put your shears, one blade at a time, fastened at the right angle to run a sharpening stone across them,” explains Pinky.
The term “hootenanny” originated in the U.S. in the 1920s, and generally denotes a gadget or “thingamajig.”
Relating to shipping sheep by rail, the collection gained a railroad pinchbar. “The steel bar is conformed to fit under a railroad car wheel, and you pry it to get the car started rolling,” says Pinky. “Almost all the railroad side rails had a grade built into them so it was easy to move the car, but the curse was most of us weren’t good enough to get the car stopped and then we’d have to pry it back.”
Pinky also mapped all the dedicated livestock trails in Natrona County. “A law in 1920 withdrew lands from homesteading and blocked up the traditional trading routes,” he says. “Natrona County has the best trails of any place in the state because they were put in place before much land was deeded.”
Although most of them are no longer used and the land is leased to surrounding landowners by the federal government they’re still a right-of-way for trailing livestock.
The Ellis family began raising sheep in Wyoming after Pinky’s dad came from Ireland in 1914 to work for his uncle and he and his brother went into business in 1919.
“When we first got married he used a sheep wagon with no refrigeration and he’d have to buy supplies that would last for a long time,” remembers Jackie, noting the changes from then to when they got out of the sheep business. “When we finally sold they had an Airstream with a TV, a gas stove and a great refrigerator.”
Including the Ellises seven people contributed to the exhibit. “It’s neat to have the recognition for the sheep industry, because it was very important to this county, far more important than the cattle industry,” says Pinky.
He says the closing of public lands and homesteading was the end of free range, and after that sheep ranchers had to have some land in ownership to apply for grazing leases. In addition, predators and lack of good help further shrank Wyoming’s sheep industry.
“There were a lot of interesting people involved with the industry – the characters and the non-characters and the people who just made it work,” says Pinky.
“Meeting the people has been so much fun, and we wouldn’t have met them without this project,” says Jackie. “It took a long time for people to respond, and we were wondering what we were going to do, but then we started getting phone calls and all of the sudden the collection grew.”