Gwen Peterson: A poem for the sheepherders who provide fiber for the world
Sheepherders are a lonely lot. They spend their time caring for sheep in the high country. Why, you might ask?
Because that’s where summer pasture is. Sheepherders spend summers in the mountains moving their woolly charges from meadow to meadow and keeping them safe from predators. Many herders pass their winters in town just waiting for spring so they can go back to the mountains.
This was particularly true in the old days. A herder, after not seeing another human for weeks or months except for the occasional camptender bringing supplies, would return to town with his wages sizzling a hole in his britches. He was ripe for enjoying the delights of a town. While many ambitious thoughts and plans may have lurked in his head — perhaps on how he would improve his life, maybe start ranching, maybe find a wife, maybe—? We can’t truly know what dreams may have bubbled in his brain. The general pattern was that once arrived in town, he’d seek a boarding house and a bar … not necessarily in that order.
For instance, when Sven, the herder, hit town, he rented a room on the second floor of the town’s Boarding House. His pay money was practically setting his trousers on fire. He could not resist. Like iron filings to a magnet, Jake’s Saloon called to him. Arrived there, he quenched his thirst and then quenched and quenched some more.
Sven got so far into his cups, he nearly took to knee-walking. He staggered forth to his lodging building. To access the second floor, the boarding house had exterior stairs. Sven began scaling, mostly on hands and knees. This staircase had a landing…a nice pause in a person’s journey to the summit. However, this night Sven , having lost all functioning brain power, failed to note the landing. Reaching it, he made an error in judgment, crawled forward and pitched off the other side onto Mother Earth. That’s where he was found next morning. Unhurt, but a bit bruised and chewing on dirt.
It’s not for others to critique Sven’s life … not at all … he was a man who, during his career, likely saved thousands of sheep from predators. He spent many lonely nights listening to the howls of coyotes and wolves and defending his flock from marauding bears. He slept with his rifle by his bed with blanks jacked in so’s to scare away a protected species predator wanting to eat a lamb for lunch.
While the story of Sven pitching off the outside landing is a humorous tale in the retelling, it’s also a tribute to those who tend the flocks that are the backbone of an industry that produces fiber and food for the world. All of us owe a debt to herders. Here in Big Timber, since we’re a largely Norwegian ethnic population, we are in process of having a larger than life metal statue of “The Unknown Norwegian Sheepherder” constructed and installed smack in the middle of town.
In old days, a passerby could utilize the hospitality of an empty tent, sheepwagon or a forest cabin. Nothing was ever locked. D.J. O’Malley, one of the early cowboy poets, long since gone to that roundup in the sky, wrote the following tribute verse to a herder in 1887.
FOUND ON A SHEEPHERDER’S MESS BOX
You, stranger, who comes to my tent,
I hope you’ll ride away content.
Eat all you want, my only wishes
Are, when you’re through, you’ll wash the dishes.
The fare is plain, I will allow,
But you are in a sheep camp now,
So bacon fried, you’ll have to go
With flapjacks made of sourdough.
There’s coffee made and in the pot,
Placed on the stove ‘twill soon get hot.
You cannot ask for pie or cake,
For they take too much time to make.
So stranger, please be kind enough,
Don’t try to treat the herder rough;
Eat all you want, eat all you can,
But tie my tent and wash the pan.
Yes, stranger, of a sin beware,
Don’t make the poor sheepherder swear;
But please respect his only wishes,
Eat of his grub but wash his dishes. ❖