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Sheep Farming with Sammy

Running sheep on the hillsides framing Anderson Valley provides the herder with a way of seeing Anderson Valley very different than from your car as you check up on the neighbors on your way to Lemons’ Market or the Post Office.

In my farming activities since arrival here in the seventies I have had the opportunity to look down on our affairs from the Ingram/Roux ranch and more spectacularly from the Reilly Ranch above the dump here in Navarro, from Guntly and Gschwend along Mill Creek, the Rickard Ranch southeast of Boonville, from various lookout points along Greenwood Road, and most frequently from the Day and Johnny Williams ranches north of Philo.  The latter two I assisted Sammy Prather on for at least a decade herding, medicating and shearing sheep in the seventies and eighties.

The sheep industry was a pioneering business for many Anderson Valley families going back to at least the 1880s, perhaps longer.  Until World War II and its food shortages the sheep industry was principally committed to wool and its sale, not meat.  And since lamb body weight at sale was not an important profit factor, the wool product only encouraged too heavy grazing on sidehill pastures all over The Valley.  I once heard, for instance, that someone ran 1100 sheep on the 1100 acre Reilly Place up Indian Creek.  When I got interested in the sheep business I believe typical grazing practice here was about one head, meaning ewe and lamb, per two acres, including forest.

Around 1972 I made a deal with Sam Prather and Lyle Luckert to run sheep on my place.  It was the typical lease arrangement then, cost to grower was $5 per head per year, paid in advance.  My place, the old Colson/Ingram ranch was 108 acres, and Sam and Lyle ran about 70 ewes, way too many sheep for the size of the place.  I took up the deal both for the needed income and as a way to learn the sheep business for myself.  A side benefit was getting to know a couple of very interesting local characters I was close friends with forever, never mind the  overgrazing.

Beside hanging out with Sam and Lyle during their seasonal activities with their band here, I also invited myself to help Sammy with his operation on Day Ranch.  The Bill Day family still owned the place, though they lived in Ukiah in semi-retirement.  Sammy’s lease included about 300 head on 640 more or less acres stretching in a kind of vertical rectangle from Highway 128 to the top of Whipple Ridge, around 1,600 feet elevation.  Its south corner backed up to Albert Elmer’s property and Clow Ridge.  The fencing layout was fascinating in that there were inside the property line in fact two ranches complete with their own  corrals, barns, shearing and wool storage sheds, loading chutes.  The "upper" ranch started about halfway to the top of the place, just a small barn and out-building to serve the 150 head band grazing all year up there.

The "lower" ranch was an elegant piece of work with rich sidehill grasslands, a small split rail fenced orchard and a fenced "avenue" coming straight down the hill to the corrals and barn.  Once one drove the sheep into the top of this corridor, it was simply a stroll behind them down to the stock management area.  The barn itself was, and still is, a beautifully built and maintained piece of work, properly elevated off the ground on sound wooden footings, walls and roof in fine shape, each space, hay storage, shearing areas, even an elegant shitter with a door inside the building.  And a few feet away on its north side was the only corn crib, on four foot high pillars, split redwood latticed sides, tin roof for storing winter feed cobs, I have seen in the Valley.  What a comfortable place to work the sheep.

The Johnny Williams ranch to the south, owned by Navarro Vineyards when Sammy leased that property was an even more grand piece of land than Day.  900 acres, mostly gently sloping high yielding grassland from top to bottom, and spectacular views along the back line fence running southerly along Whipple Ridge for about a half a mile.  Sam arranged the lease around 1975, then bought a single band of very healthy Rambouillet ewes from a ranch somewhere in Oregon.  If I remember right he stocked this ranch in April, say 1975, so we gathered the band for shearing around the first of June.

I remember the day well.  We drove Sam’s four wheel drive jeep up to the top of the ranch just at dawn of a windless day we could tell would become warm though not too.  Before sunrise it was ten degrees warmer at 1,600 feet than down at the shearing site.  And what views of the Valley.

That day our battle plan was thus: Sam went south along the ridge to near the property line adjacent to Cecil Gowan, I to the north near the Day Ranch corner carrying my just-purchased oak shepherd’s crook and a police whistle.  At the signal we  would start down the ridges whistling and talking to the sheep about our mission:  everyone to assemble at the shearing shed corral, no exceptions.

But first the views.  Once at my north post I put my hand up to signal "wait."  I had to absorb a whole different way of looking at Anderson Valley, its terrain and its communities.  There were all four of the new vineyards in the Valley.  You could see their actual layouts on the river bottom ridges at Edmeades, Husch, and the new vines layouts Hans and Teresa Kobler were planting along Lazy Creek on the old Pinole place.  And off to the northwest about five miles away on the last ridgeback before the redwoods entirely close in the Valley and the River there is was a little sidehill vineyard, Wiley.

And behind and west of Wiley there’s Mal Pass on the right and higher to the left the wooded Tony Fashauer Ranch arm of Greenwood Ridge where the River turns to head northwest on its final run to the Ocean.  From the top of Day Ranch back north another feature of Greenwood Ridge geography comes into view, the beginning of the relatively flat bench on its north side that is Ross Ranch, and you can see the east end of the large dry farmed apple orchard, deep timber soil large trees still in full production back then.

And back in the Valley but still a mile and more away there were in detail the layout of the Guntly, Pinole and Clark ranches between Mill Creek and Christine Woods.  Fences, particularly the split rail ones, the mixture of sheep pasture, orchards, small redwood groves including the burnt out monument ones on Pinole, and the estate-like house, barn and water tower at Guntly and the more modest ranch houses at Pinole and Clark across the road.

Enough Valley gazing.  Sammy whistled again, I replied and we started walking down the ridges, trying to keep one another in sight to make sure all the sheep were going that way too.  The neat thing about this Oregon Rambouillet band was that it had apparently been driven regularly enough seasonally at its old home that they knew the script very well and most of them simply ambled down to the holding pens and barn without a lot of enforcement.  Our job was then more of a ritual walk, swinging my crook and generally talking or singing to myself just loud enough not to wear out my throat in the hour it took to reach the work barn.

But even the most disciplined bands have their individualists, sometimes a lone sheep and lamb, sometimes a leader and its sub-band.  At Williams I remember only one troublemaker, the chiefess of about fifteen head, but very predictable in behavior.  She would get tired of heading downhill in the sun and regularly over the course of our seasonal drives found the same shady resting spot under the oaks alongside a stream course to the left of the down ridge I was patrolling.  I would simply check that grove when I got to the general area, wave my crook ominously and berate her as loudly as I could to get her and crew back on the trail again.

The end of the drive was the simplest and most lovely part.  About a quarter mile from the bottom of the hill the ridge trails all met at a graded truck road that immediately entered a hardwood grove alongside a stream then went directly to the stock pens and barn.  By the time Sam and I converged there the sheep were so far ahead of us that we could only see a few stragglers on the road a hundred yards ahead of us.  Drive mission accomplished.

The barn and stock holding areas were, like at Day, beautifully built and well-maintained.  I wish I could remember more about their details.  The barn was surrounded by some open pasture and just at the seam between the down-sloping ridge fingers Sammy and I had just patrolled and behind the round Valley floor knob where Ten Bennett planted his first vineyard.  You can still fleetingly see it today from the highway, even at sixty miles an hour.  The barn itself  was not large and functioned principally for sheep band management.  There was only a little space for hay storage, and there were four single sheep stalls for the professional shearers, each with an exit and entrance gate from the supply stall that held perhaps forty sheep at a time.  Ewe in, ninety seconds to shear, sheep out, next.

So by 8:30 or so, before the Valley floor had begun to warm up, the drive was over.  Sammy and I could take a break, wipe off the dusty sweat caking our brows, noses and necks, have a drink of water, and get ready for the task of the day.  That would be according to the season, medication, hoof trimming, castration and tail-docking, or shearing and lambs to market.

The next trip up to the top of Williams Sam and I switched posts, he north I at the south end, another new perspective on the Valley.  My view was more west and southwesterly than before.  Right below me straddling the Highway was Cecil Gowan’s complex array of orchards on side hill and flatland all the way to the River and to Little Hendy Grove.  And next door was Art Gowan’s smaller orchard array complemented by those two lovely barns, the one on the River side of the Highway associated with the sawmill that ran there in the fifties.  The more elegant one on this side the hay barn and milking parlor where Art had small commercial dairy operation after World War II.

Then looking further south one could see Big Hendy Grove and the line of young redwoods where the River bent southerly so one looked right up it by what used to be Smokey Blattner’s river run gravel quarry.  And further to the left I could see the back side of Philo hill with Arnold Brown’s Douglas fir grove crowning its high point east of the Highway (I have a precious water color of the hill and crown painted long ago by Arnold’s niece Charmian Blattner.  It probably belongs at the Historical Society.)  And then over the right side of Philo hill I was looking into the forested Ham Canyon Rancheria Creek area at the back of Prather Ranch, hard to see from the Highway.

And until the next episode up on the ridges I would store in the memory bank pictures of a whole different way of seeing and understanding the Valley: a fascinating tapestry of geography, small farms, orchards, vineyards and woodlands comprising our rural community.  I couldn’t wait for the next opportunity a few months later to get out of Sammy’s jeep at the top of the Day or Williams ranch and re-explore the vistas up there provided.

Next time: Valley vistas from Boonville, Indian Creek, Guntly Ranch, Reilly and Greenwood Ridge.

2 Comments

  1. Erick Prather November 20, 2020

    Thanks Brad!

  2. George Hollister November 11, 2020

    Good one Brad, keep writing.

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