Across the Old West, what was once function is now fashion. Well-worn cowboy boots, spurs, saddles and Stetsons all have a new cachet as collectibles. One man’s junk is another man’s buffed up treasure. But perhaps unique in this Old West/New West metamorphosis is the desire to preserve and restore historic sheep wagons.
Unlike bridles, saddle blankets or rusty tractors, here’s a part of Western Americana that you can fix up, sleep in and haul to hunting camp or just over to the son-in-law’s so you can rest peacefully while your newest grandson hoots and hollers in the house.
Historic sheep wagons, the traditional home on the range, have new lives as museum exhibits, extra bedrooms and movable memorials to the agricultural West when millions of sheep grazed public land; well-dressed American males wore wool vests, suits and Fedora hats; and families ate roast lamb for Sunday dinner.
I’ve always found the old wagons intriguing. First off, I like the shape. A good sheep wagon is a cut-down version of the venerable Conestoga wagons that brought 250,000 Americans west on the Oregon and California trails. But unlike families that squeezed into Conestoga wagons, life in a sheep wagon was a game of solitaire with a single male herder and a dog or two.
Though different companies made sheep wagons, the design almost never changed. They were around 11 feet long and 6½ feet wide; Dutch or double door in the front; sheet-metal cook and heating stove on the right with a narrow stovepipe poking through the roof; bed across the back where the herder slept perpendicular to the door; window above the bed; and shelves everywhere else, including a small table that pulled out from beneath the bed, which was always covered with wool blankets, of course.
There was a small window on each side and possibly a sink. On the wagon’s exterior, carpenters mounted grub boxes between the front and back wheels. The older wagons had tilt-out cupboards for flour, small rails for wash rags, clamps and brackets for brooms and wash pans and wooden drawers for everything from cutlery to granite-ware plates and coffee cups. Snug. Sometimes tidy, the old sheep wagons were portable homes for lonely Greek, Basque, Scotch and Hispano herders who left their families to “follow the sheeps.”
Rawlins, Wyoming, blacksmith James Candlish may have manufactured the first sheep wagon in 1884 after seeing one designed and built by sheep rancher George Ferris. Schulte Hardware Co. of Casper, Wyoming, standardized the design around 1900, but blacksmiths built them around the state. Wealthy ranchers could also order custom sheep wagons from the Studebaker Co. of Indiana or Bayne Manufacturing of Wisconsin. With an average of 1,000 sheep per herder and per wagon, a large sheep ranch might have had as many as 20 wagons. The definitive reference book is Nancy Weidel’s Sheepwagon: Home on the Range (High Plains Press: Glendo, Wyoming, 2001).
The original wagons, sometimes called a “house on wheels,” had bowed canvas tops. By the 1930s, having been rebuilt again and again, canvas roofs gave way to metal, and rubber-tired wheels replaced wooden running gear. But if the exterior changed, the interior almost never did. Sheep ranchers gambled against the weather, against coyotes and against rising and falling markets for wool and lambs. Often the only hedge between them and financial ruin was the dedication and determination of their isolated herders willing to watch woolies day in and day out and keep an ear cocked for marauding bears. The herder’s well-being and his resourcefulness depended upon his comfort in the sheep wagon and how it was stocked.
After World War II when a generation of American soldiers came home with an aversion to lamb, having eaten rank mutton, especially in the Pacific, and with new polyester fibers replacing wool, sheep numbers declined and then plummeted. The old sheep wagons got hauled into barns and sheds or just abandoned beneath piñon pines or in canyon bottoms. But now they have new value for ranch families that look back with pride at their rural roots and their ancestors who struggled so that they could succeed.
The White River Museum of the Rio Blanco County Historical Society in Meeker has a re-painted sheep wagon complete with an antler door handle. There’s a sheep wagon at the Wyman Living History Museum near Craig, and there’s one on display at the Wyoming State Museum in Cheyenne.
If there’s a restoration renaissance for the old wagons, orders for new ones stack up years in advance. One of the premier manufacturers of modern camp wagons is Wilson Camps of Midway, Utah. Rules dictate a minimum of 98 square feet per herder or about 7 feet by 12 feet for camp wagons. New thick-gauge aluminum-sided camps have beds, shelves, propane cooking stoves, wood stoves for heating, solar and propane lights, showers and a small tub for washing clothes. Mark Wilson’s camps are so popular that in 2015, the company was 44 camps behind in production. “As soon as we get them done, they leave,” he says proudly. They cost $25,000 and up.
Sheepmen place an order then wait a few years to be able to pick up their new camp. The camps hold their value and are so well insulated that Wilson claims, “A propane gas light will keep them warm at 30 below. In a sheep camp you can have any color you want as long as it’s white. Owners can almost always sell them for one or two thousand dollars more than they paid.” That’s because at 3,300 pounds, the camps are built one at a time with a lifetime guarantee on hinges. The camps have a distinctive thin red stripe and a serial number on a steel builder’s plate.
Hunters, fishermen, loggers and rock hounds all have bought Wilson Camps, which are found in every state west of the Mississippi River. “We have ’em in Alaska for hunting, but not yet in Hawaii,” Wilson laughs.
For third-generation La Plata County rancher Davin Montoya, sheep wagons are a family tradition. He recently bought an old wagon from the Farmer family, which once ran sheep in what is now the Shenandoah subdivision. Davin’s grandad, Belarmino Montoya, started the family sheep business, which lasted from the early 1900s to 1978. “We had a sheep wagon and one of the herders burned it up,” Davin told me.
On his new purchase, Montoya says, “I’ve got quite a bit of repair to do. I’ll fix it up, and I might take it to chuck wagon cook-offs. It appeals to me because it’s my childhood, my history, my heritage,” he tells me.
When I inspect the vintage wagon, the smell of mice is overpowering. Davin laughs, “I’m trying to get rid of the mousy smell. If I was going to get hantavirus, it’s too late. I’ve already got it. These drawers were full of rat poop and piñon nuts. I don’t know how many hours I’ve spent cleaning. I think this wagon is pretty original.”
He’s right. The screws are flat-slotted with square nuts, which means pre-Philips screwdrivers. The wagon’s interior, painted white, may have lead paint. Then there’s the sheet of asbestos behind the old stovepipe and returning wasps. “Everything is well-bolted together. It’s hell for stout,” Montoya grins.
A sheep rancher turned cattle rancher returns to his woolly roots by restoring an old sheep wagon. Why not? It’s the perfect segue from the Old West to the New West. What was once pure function is now family fun and fashion.
Andrew Gulliford is a professor of history and environmental studies at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at [email protected].