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The first Powder River Basin Sheepherder’s Festival sought to showcase culture and history

The Campbell County Rockpile Museum hosted the first Powder River Basin Sheepherder’s Festival on Friday, May 6 and Saturday, May 7, which showcased the history of sheepherding in northeast Wyoming. Sheep and goats were brought in from local owners and sheepdogs showed off their herding skills.

“It was about giving you a sense of what being a sheepherder is like and it doesn’t matter what century you’re in, the mechanics of the job are still the same,” said Stephan Zacharias, Museum Educator for the Rockpile Museum. “It was to recognize men and women, past and present, who have herded sheep in northeast Wyoming.”

Beginning in the late 19th century, sheepherding was primarily undertaken by Scottish immigrants. Some decided to stay and became ranchers in their own right, Zacharias stated.

The history is rich, like the first three female herders in the country’s history in 1918 due to a lack of traditional ones. This was primarily due to many herders going to fight in WWI.

“There [were] three girls from Campbell County, all from Campbell County High School who became the first three shepherdesses and it was national news,” he said. “In Wyoming there were flock mistresses, [who were] women who owned their own flocks of sheep, but you didn’t really see any women shepherding prior to 1918.”

Later sheepherders consisted of Basque immigrants, which began arriving in the 1920s and are some of the best-known herders. Many settled in Johnson and Sheridan counties. Modern-day herders often come from the highlands of South American countries, such as Peru, Bolivia, and Argentina.

“The Columbia Sheep Association wouldn’t exist without men like the Reno’s the Wright’s and the [Staley] Archibald’s developing that first Columbia sheep that then becomes part of the UW’s sheep program and sends off to Dubois, Idaho to become recognized as a breed,” he explained.

Though much of northeast Wyoming is dedicated to cattle ranching, Zacharias said there’s still a fair number of ranchers who still have sheep. Some ranchers in Crook and Weston counties still raise sheep as well, he said.

“The Columbia Sheep [Breeders] Association wouldn’t exist without men like the Reno’s the Wright’s and the [Staley] Archibald’s developing that first Columbia sheep that then becomes part of the UW’s sheep program and sends off to Dubois, Idaho to become recognized as a breed,” he explained.

For future festivals, Zacharias would like to incorporate more cultural aspects, such as the music, literature, and food of the different ethnic groups that have been herders. This year’s event did feature the Basque accordion, among other musical selections, however.

“We have a lot of interest [from] people who want to bring their sheep wagons in,” he said. “So, one of the things we would like to do is be able to have categories, get sponsorships and have people be rewarded, you know, the best restoration or the most glamorous or the best tiny home.”

The Rockpile Museum does have a sheep wagon on loan from a local family who has a history in sheepherding. There are plans to expand the activities and offerings for future festivals, which are slated to be held on the first Friday and Saturday of May.

Zacharias said that as of 2019, Wyoming ranks fourth in wool production nationwide, with Campbell County ranking fourth in Wyoming for wool production.

Hugh Cook is Wyoming Public Radio's Northeast Reporter, based in Gillette. A fourth-generation Northeast Wyoming native, Hugh joined Wyoming Public Media in October 2021 after studying and working abroad and in Washington, D.C. for the late Senator Mike Enzi.
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