What is it with sheep? Why in the world is there a Trailing of the Sheep Festival in an area more famous for skiing than sheep? No Idaho license plate boasts, “Famous Wooly Ewes.” No bumper stickers state, “No Ewe Turns.”

The Sun Valley area celebrates sheep because they were here first. Only mining preceded them as an economic driver in the Wood River Valley in the 19th century.

As mining died out, sheep ranching followed and thrived in the early 20th century. Then, the area hosted more sheep than people. During World War I, Ketchum was the largest sheep-shipping center in the U.S., primarily providing food and wool for military uniforms.

Reminders of this once dominant industry are everywhere. The old Lane Mercantile Building on the corner of Ketchum’s Main Street and Sun Valley Road was once a hub for ranchers, lamb buyers, coyote trappers, ranch foremen and sheepherders. Portions of the Wood River Trail, which runs the length of the valley, lie atop a sheepherding easement.

Sheep were here before Averell Harriman declared that the Union Pacific Railroad would create a destination ski resort to be called Sun Valley. They were here before Harriman invited the merc’s proprietor, John Lane Sr., to open the first ski shop in the fledgling resort.

The valley celebrates sheep this week because of their history with people. It pulls participants out of today’s polyester, HEPA-filtered lives into a dusty experience that links them to their own history.

That’s why sheep. That’s why here.

So, grab a sweater, savor some sheep cheese, admire the whip-smart border collies, tuck into some lamb delicacies and enjoy!

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