The sheep operations that exist today in and around the Wood River Valley represent only a tiny fraction of what was once a truly grand enterprise. The historic importance of the sheep industry to the town of Ketchum and Sun Valley would be difficult to over state.
Some would say the Sun Valley Resort would not exist where it does today if not for the millions of sheep that once ranged across the hills above town.
Sheep were first brought to America in the 16th century by Spanish colonists, who also brought pigs, horses and other animals. According to local historian Sandra Hofferber, any of a number of early settlers to the Wood River Valley could have brought the first sheep.
Hofferber’s book, “A Pictorial Early History of the Wood River Valley,” lists the Laidlaw, Brockie and Friedman families as possibly the first to establish bands in the area.
Hofferber writes that Hailey founder John Hailey brought bands to the valley in the late 1880s, when the mining boom was in full swing.
“At that time, Idaho recorded a breeding sheep population of 14,000,” Hofferber writes.
But it would only be a few more years until the gold bugs back East put the kibbosh on Western populist “bi-metalist” plans to tie silver to an official U.S. currency.
As a result, silver values dropped precipitously and the mining boom went bust. Nearly all of the mines in the valley, which had been producing $2 million worth of ore per year for a decade, were shut down.
But due to an abundance of good rangeland, by 1890 the local sheep population had reached 614,000. By 1918, due in part to U.S. military demand for wool, lamb and mutton, the population hit 2.65 million, almost six times the state’s human population, writes Hofferber.
“In the 1920s, sheep ranching
became the wealth of the valley.”
The Oregon Short Line railroad spur, which had once transported ore from the valley, now had a new purpose.
“In the 1920s, sheep ranching became the wealth of the valley,” Hofferber writes. “Millions of sheep covered the mountains and the valleys of the area. Every spring the stockmen would head their herds for the mountains, and every fall they would return with their ewes.”
The Basque sheepherders, fleeing political turmoil in Spain, came to lend expertise. Thousands of lambs were shipped by railroad from Fairfield, Hill City, Carey, Picabo, Bellevue, Hailey and Ketchum to markets in Omaha, Chicago and Missouri. Sheep meat found its way into military canned rations. Soldiers in two World Wars were kept warm by Wood River Valley wool.
Mary Austin Crofts, executive director of the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, says that sheep production led to the continuing demand for railway service to the obscure town of Ketchum, and ultimately to the founding of Sun Valley Resort. How else could Austrian Count Felix Schaffgotsch have taken a train from Shoshone to come see if it snows deep up here?
“It’s a story that I heard over and over again, but there’s no way to verify it,” Crofts said. “But Ketchum would surely be a different place today if it weren’t for sheep.”
Hofferber agrees that linking sheep to Averell Harriman’s selection of Ketchum as the site for America’s first destination ski resort “is not much of a stretch.”
Today the remnant sheep bands that hoof it south each fall through the Wood River Valley to winter pastures number about 15,000, not much more than the number in the late 1880s. But perhaps the valley’s modern recreation economy, and all the glitz that goes with it, is carried by their legacy.