Salute to the Sheep-men

Shirley Kelly
Glade Park, Colo.
Feed lot in Fruita around 1898-1910.

Their origin is still a mystery … their language is not related to any other tongue … yet they have not lost their identity or traditions. The Basque Fathers and Forefathers migrated to this country from the Pyrenees Mountain Ranges of the rugged border country of France and Spain. They came as Sheepherders – with their dogs, hard work and sacrifices they became sheep-masters. Sheep were first introduced in the Grand valley in 1852 and many immigrants migrated to this country and settled in sheep country areas of Colorado, eastern Oregon, southern Idaho, Nevada, and California. They also tried in various cattle States, but were run off or killed by the cattle Barons of that era.

They are excellent sheepherders and hardworking, many started in sheep business, a little at a time, by taking their pay in sheep. A warm hearted people, they have kept alive the music and dancing of their homeland, their skill and coordination is amazing, dancing on swords held crosswise by four men is a breathtaking feat, also dancing on an overturned wine glass, as seen at the Basque festivals around the country.

There was a semi documentary film named “The Basque Sheepherder,” made several years ago, following the life and times of Juan Gorospe, he was first seen in his native village Navarniz, in the Spanish Pyrenees and his journey and adventure to Colorado. In the film the Sheep-rancher for whom Juan will work is a real live sheep-rancher, Jean Urruty. Mr Urruty’s life story closely parallels the Pyrenees. He too came to America from the French side of the Pyrenees on a contract to herd sheep. His knowledge of Basque folklore and sheep raising makes this film a true picture.

The camera follows Juan into the high country of the Colorado Rockies as he tends his herd of 2,000 sheep. The lonely life of the sheepherders has almost become a story for the vanishing west as fewer flocks are driven above timberline due to rising costs. Because of this fact, “The Basque Sheepherder” may well become a historical document.

While tending their herds in the Rockies the young Basque is challenged by Marauding coyote, eagles swooping down on newborn lambs and cowboys killing some of his sheep in a battle over grazing rights. But there are good times too, like Basque festivals in Nevada, Colorado and other States, catching trout by hand, and letters from home.

After faithfully fulfilling his contract, the Basque sheep-herder returned to his land, but many others who had worked for their flocks remained in this Country.

As mentioned previously in this article, Jean Urruty was also a Basque immigrant who came to the United States in 1925. He arrived in Price Utah to join his cousin, Grace Aubert and her family.

In the spring of 1926 Urruty helped trail 6,000 head of sheep to Pinyon Mesa by way of Grand Junction, Colo., crossing the Colorado River in the Redlands on the old main street bridge, a wooden structure so rickety that only a few animals were permitted on it at a time. Working with 10 or 12 Basques, Urruty discovered how to handle sheep, but learned very little English. The herders came to town for a week’s vacation once each summer from Pinyon Mesa, but Jean Urruty preferred to stay on Pinyon Mesa. As winter approached, the flocks and herders would return to winter range at Green River, Utah.

Urruty worked 4-1/2-years as a herder, working for other people before he and two other Basque friends, all of whom had been diligently saving their money, decided to buy a flock of 3,000 in the late 1920s. They found an Italian banker in Utah that would loan them money; and more sheep and land was bought, and they were on their way to success. The three men didn’t see the banker again for several years, transacting all their business or renewing their loans by mail.

Urruty married Bennie Velasques in 1935 and they bought a hotel on Colorado Avenue and named it the “La Salle Hotel,” which I believe has still kept the name. Days were worked with his sheep, whilst his wife took care of the hotel and at night he donned a suit and necktie and took his place behind the desk. This was a “home away from home” for Basques from one end of the country to the other.

Jean and his wife acquired land in the valley and built a small home on 24 and H Road in Fruita, Colo., where a handball court was erected and a barn for various Basque activities. The handball ball court still stands, but with the growth and changing times the rest of the land has been turned into a recreation park.

Urruty became naturalized citizen in 1959. In 1976 he was among 10 outstanding citizens to be presented “The Americans by Choice” awards at a citizenship day sponsored by the people of Denver. He received the award because he had dedicated his life helping and sponsoring the Basque people and promoting cultural activities that have helped States appreciate the Basques.

Unfortunately, the days of the Basques has nearly come to an end, most who are living and first came here are in their late 80s or 90s, some still run small flocks of sheep. Jean Urruty died in 1974 at the age of 79. But the stories and memories still stay alive in the history of this country.

Shirley Kelly would like to dedicate this article to Mary Papas who passed away January, 2011. Mary was originally from Greece, a wonderful cook and worked closely with the Mesa County Wool Growers Association, and had so much information on the Greek and Basque Sheepmen.

Also to Michael Menard in the Lloyd files, Museum of Western Colorado for pictures and information for this article.