Wyoming Sheep

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Lost CAbin, John B. Okie, the "Australian system."



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Sheep at Lost Cabin, 1915

As in the instance of cattle ranches in the 1880's, with the rise of the wool growing industry, mammoth corporate-owned sheep ranches were created. One of the largest sheep companies was the Big Horn Sheep Company of Lost Cabin owned by John Brognard Okie (1866-1930).


Residence of John B. Okie, Lost Cabin, Wyoming, 1909

Okie, the son of President Lincoln's personal physician, first arrived in Wyoming in the late 1870's. Using borrowed money he began herding sheep along Badwater Creek. He was successful. In 1894, he proved up his homestead and thereafter continued the accumulation of thousands of acres in Fremont and Natrona Counties. The house depicted above was constructed in 1900 and had about 20 rooms. The botton floor was brownstone and the upper floor was constructed of pine brought in by freight wagons. The house had inside plumbing and acetylene lighting. The house was referred to by Indians as the "big tipi." Okie, himself was referred to as the "Big Father."


Administration Building, Big Horn Sheep Company, Lost Cabin, Wyoming, undated

In addition to the house, Okie constructed an adminisration building, hotel, saloon, store, school, golf course, a skating rink, and an aviary in which he kept Cockatoos and other exotic birds.


Administration Building, Big Horn Sheep Company, Lost Cabin, Wyoming, undated

Okie's financial interests were wide ranging and were referred to by Time Magazine as "an empire." The empire included banking, sheep in Texas and Mexico. In Mexico he additionally had rights to the Piggly Wiggly franchise and owned six stores in Mexico City. In the 1920's he traveled to Mexico by air. In 1930, drowned while duck hunting on his ranch.


Bunk House, Big Horn Sheep Company, Lost Cabin, Wyoming, undated

The empire continued to be operated by his son, Van Guelder Okie (1893-1956). In 1944, his son liquidated the last 16,000 head of sheep and the following year sold the ranch.

With the growth of the wool industry new methods were introduced. As pictured below, In approximately 1917, Okie introduced the "Australian system" of sheep shearing into the state. Under the Australian system, shearing is done in a sheep shed rather than in an open corral as depicted below. As illustrated in the next photo, sheep are placed in one room and put into a pen with five sheep each. There, the sheep are mechanically sheared and shoved out a door at the end of the pen to be inspected and let go to pasture.


Sheep shed, Big Horn Sheep Company, Lost Cabin

In addition to mechanical shearing, the wool would remain cleaner. Additionally, although not fully adopted in Wyoming, under the Austalian System wool would be graded into as many as 14 different classifications. Customarily in Wyoming, only four different classifications would be utilized.


Marking Lambs near Douglas, undated

Just as branding of cattle dates back to ancient Egypt, the practice of marking sheep goes back into antiquity. The ordinances of the Isle of Man provided in 1510, as an example:

" The forester or his deputy ought to go forth on St. Collum Eve through the forest, and ride to the highest hill-top in the Isle of Man, and there blow his horn thrice; this done, to range and view the forest, and on the third day to go forth and take such company with him as he shall like, to see what sheep he findeth unshorn. If he finde any, he ought to take them with his dogge, if the said sheep be not milk sheep, to shear them and to take the fleece to himself and to put a private mark upon said sheep, to use all he finds within the precincts of the forest so at the time, to the intent that if any of the said sheep be found the next year by the same iforester, he to certify the comptroller and receiver of the same, that they may be recorded in the Court Rolls and so priced and sold to the Lord's best profit, etc."

[Writer's note: St. Collum Eve, St. Columba's Eve, June 9.] Originally marking of sheep was done by ear marks or ear clipping. Today, it is done with colored markers with a choice of bright colors, sometimes in an aerosol can.

By the early 1950's, another giant sheep company, the Yellowstone Sheep Company of Riverton, had accummulated 17,000 acres and additionally had an allotment under the Taylor Grazing Act of 3 1/2 townships. A township contains 36 square miles. The Taylor Grazing Act, still a source of controversy, was passed in 1934 and provides for grazing preferences in the use of public lands. Its validity was upheld in 1996 by Wyoming U. S. District Court Judge Clarence A. Brimmer.


Wool Train, Lost Cabin, 1909.

The majority shareholder of the Yellowstone Sheep Company, John K. Hartt of Rawlins, was also the majority shareholder of two other corporations, the Cow Creek Sheep Company and the Pioneer Sheep Company. The two between them had accummulated control over 94,000 acres of land in Sweetwater and Carbon Counties and would ship as much as 400,000 pounds of wool to Boston where the primary auction would be held. Cow Creek and Pioneer adopted the Australian system of classifying wool. Hartt, himself, arrived in Wyoming shortly before the turn of the century, pennyless, allegedly getting off the train in Rawlins because that is as far as he could afford a ticket. At the time of his death in 1952 he had interests not only in the sheep companies but also land in Colorado and an interest in a bank.


Interior sheep shed, Big Horn Sheep Company

Sheepherding continued on next page.