Duncan & Dodger
Photo courtesy of Gracie Dailey of Nine Oaks Farm.

The Art of Stickmaking * Did Ewe Know? * Sheepish * Sheepwagon

by Mr. Wilf Laidler

Shepards Crook

I am secretary of the Border Stick Dressers Association (BSDA), founded on May 19, 1951 by a group of shepherds and farmers in the Coquet Valley on the English side of the border between England and Scotland. The BSDA is the oldest stick making organisation in the UK. It was formed because the craft had virtually died out, the practical need for shepherds crooks was increasingly being met by more modern materials. However as more decorative sticks were being made this revived the craft and in reality it is now an art form, principally due to the efforts of Norman Tulip. BSDA members are now drawn from all walks of life, not just the rural community, and have taken up the craft as a hobby.

The Scottish Crook makers are a separate organisation, apart from dual membership of some of our members, and see themselves purely as crook makers and have restricted decoration on the head of the crook in contrast to our fancy sticks. There is also a relatively new organisation called the British Stickmakers Guild. The skills required are passed on both at regular evening classes and on a one to one basis.

Sticks are the second oldest of the tools used by man, stones are a possible first, however sticks are the first symbol of authority. The caveman with the biggest stick would undoubtedly be the leader of the group. Even today in most religions, the staff is a symbol of authority, denoting positions of influence and power. Animals and birds use twigs and sticks to probe into termite holes and assorted nests to dislodge the occupants.

Shepherds have used sticks since 'time immemorial', both as a weapon against predators and as a tool to assist them in catching ailing and recalcitrant sheep. Originally these sticks would be simple wood with a natural curve at the end. At some point, someone carved the curve into the crook on purpose when no natural one was available, but this would not be as strong as the natural curve. Further down the road, another someone discovered that by applying heat to horn it could be manipulated to form the correct curve for a crook and so the horn headed shepherd's crook evolved.

The next innovation was to add further decoration to the stick. Originally it was probably the name of the owner, or farm, that was simply scratched on the market stick to identify it to the owner after a night of drinking to celebrate after the sale of some stock at the local market. The Scottish shepherds, being Scottish, then started to elaborate by carving a thistle design on the nose of the crook and this was the only decoration used until 1933, when two men from the Coquet Valley, George Snaith and Ned Henderson, each put a Brown Trout on the handle for the show at Thropton.

The next milestone was the founding in 1951 of the BSDA in the College Valley by a group of men who included George Snaith. Even then, the fancy sticks were only Trout or Thistle Sticks, the competitions being made up of Neck and Leg Crooks, both horn and one piece wood, Market Sticks and Ladies Sticks. The terms "crooks and sticks" tend to be interchangeable, with most people understanding what a stick is, except U.S. visitors to the U.K. are occasionally tempted to call them "canes".

Shortly after the founding of the BSDA, a young farmer by the name of Norman Tulip sought out George Snaith who was acknowledged as the best stick dresser at that time. He went to his isolated farm and knocked on the door, which after a time was opened about six inches and he was asked brusquely what he wanted, when Norman explained his mission, he was told to go away and make some sticks and then come back with them. This he did and a few months later, he knocked on the door and again it was opened the same six inches. Norman stated he had brought the sticks, whereupon a hand reached out and took hold of the sticks, withdrew them into the house and shut the door in Norman's face.

After what Norman said seemed like hours but in reality was only a few minutes, the door opened and George said to him, "I think you have talent and I will show you all I know, but you must promise me never to sell a stick" and Norman never did. No one knows why George Snaith made Norman Tulip make that promise, but he kept it and he told me that it was the best promise he made because even when times were hard he was never tempted to sell a stick. But sticks made by Norman have been presented to the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh and when the Prince and Princess of Wales got married the Horners' Guild in London asked Norman to make them a stick each for a wedding present. The Queen Mother and several other members of the Royal family each have one of Norman's sticks.

All kinds of horn can be used to make the heads on sticks, as long as it is true horn and not antler or ivory for although they can be used, they cannot be manipulated with heat as can horn. Sheep horn is my favourite although buffalo (water buffalo not bison) is used in increasing amounts because of its availability. Cow horn is difficult because of the large core hole which has to be reduced by compression. In Norman's collection there is a very nice Ayrshire cow plain stick and a one made from the horn of one of the Chillingham Wild cows, I myself have been unable to master the use of cow horns to make a stick, maybe that is because I am more interested in making fancy sticks. Goat horn is also used, but it tends to be flaky and needs a lot of work to bulk it up, and when available, some types of antelope horn are suitable, especially of the larger species.

Of all sheep horns, the best is from a Dorset Horn, very rare now as most of them are bred as polled sheep, but Blackface, Swaledale, Welsh Mountain and other hill sheep are suitable. A good horn can also be obtained from the Jacob Sheep and its dual colouring lends itself to a very natural fancy stick. I once made one with a Border Collie on the heel and a Blackface ewe on the nose, this went as a gift to one of my wife's cousins who was a shepherd at the time. Merino sheep horns from Australia have proved to be a disappointment, being very thin walled and flaky and thus easily cracked and broken.

Obviously the horns come from the tup, although a very simple working stick can be fashioned from an old ewe's horn, and the older the tup the better, because there is a much greater density of horn. With current farming methods, many young tups are fed more concentrates than in the past and this makes the horn more liable to damage and reduces the quality for stick dressing. Also these pampered sheep are unable to sustain a long working life and seldom reach advanced age.

With reference to concentrates fed to young tups, I think the best way I can describe the problem of poor horn quality, although it hasn't been scientifically proven, is to liken it to the difference between a tree grown on fertile ground and a one grown in a harsh environment. The former grows rapidly with wide annular rings whilst the later grows more slowly but is denser and generally stronger and harder. It could also be that the irritation caused by the sheep headfly results in greater damage to the softer horn. Fighting will also cause a greater tendency for blood blisters to form in the horn of young tups to blight the stickdresser when a good deal of work has been already carried out on the horn. Being a natural material is one of the beauties and strengths of horn but it is also one of its weaknesses, because you never know what imperfection that you are going to come across, that is why I like making fancy sticks - you can disguise some minor imperfections.

The shank of a stick can be made of any suitable wood, George Snaith only used birch, whereas Norman favoured holly. The most common wood used is hazel, because of its availability, strength and tendency to grow straight, however blackthorn, plum, pear and other fruit woods are used. This group of woods are generally, but not always, used with the bark on. Holly, ash and other woods are usually used with the bark off. The best time to cut a good stick is when you see it, if you don't someone else will. If you do see a good one, the best time to cut it is in the winter after the leaves fall and when sap is at a minimum.

Hazel and that class of wood needs to be seasoned for at least one year and needs to be cut slightly larger than the finished diameter to allow for shrinkage, if cut in the summer this can be as much as twenty percent. Holly and other hard woods are cut anywhere between two and four inches in diameter to allow the bark to be removed as well as sufficient wood to expose a nice grain pattern. They need to be seasoned for a greater period of time, Norman kept some hard woods for fifteen years before using them in stickmaking.

The wood has to balance the horn, this makes the stick "clever" to handle. If one goes back to the principle use of the stick, to catch and herd sheep, then like all tools it must accomplish the job without placing an additional burden or stress on the user.

As to length, always cut a stick longer than is needed, you can always remove some but you cannot replace any, for a working stick usually up to five feet long is about right, depending on the user and his personal preference. It is also wise to remember that the shepherd's crook is not only his long arm it is his third leg. He can put both hands on the crown, lean forward onto it and take the weight of his feet, rather like Andrew Lang's drunk who uses a lamp post more for support than for illumination. If one needs a stick for support because of need, then the correct height can be obtained by holding the stick up against the person and the crown of the stick should be level with the top of the hip bone.

When you have gathered your horn and shank, you then need to look for the tools. The first requirement is a large strong vice; I use what is called a Blacksmiths' Single Leg Vice, these are unobtainable now except sometimes at farm sales. This is used to hold the horn while you are shaping it, as well as to compress and manipulate the horn. You also need several pieces of curved scrap metal to help squeeze and shape the horn.

Due to the hardness of the horn, it is difficult to shape using a knife or chisels, so you need a collection of files and rasps to remove the excess material, and you even need some needle files to assist in the decoration. You also need a pan in which to boil the horn in and some method of heating for small sections of the horn. You also need a small soldering iron or pyrography pen to burn the feathers, fins and other small details into the horn. Finally, you need various grades of abrasive cloth to finish the horn and a colouring medium if you have decorated the stick.

When you have selected your horn and shank, it is time to get down to some work to turn them into a desirable stick. The first job is to cut the horn to length, for a full size shepherd's crook you need at least 16 inches of usable horn, and for a walking stick, eight inches. Of course if you are making a really fancy stick, you need to retain as much of the horn as possible.

When you have cut the horn to length, then it has to be boiled for at least two hours. I always boil them when my wife is not around because the smell is certainly not attar of roses. Take the horn out of the boiling water and squeeze it between two large metal plates, this is to flatten out the spiral so you end up with a flat circle. Be careful not to flatten it too much, it should be at least one and a quarter inches thick. You then leave the horn between the plates until it has cooled down.

Once cooled, the horn cannot be boiled again or the spiral will return, so it is necessary to use another form of heat on small portions of the horn at a time. In the past the shepherds used the heat generated at the top of the chimney of the old oil lamps, then they started to use spirit burners, and blow torches but they were too hot. Now everyone uses hot air paint strippers and they are ideal for directing heat to a small area.

A horn has a good side, convex, and a bad side, concave, with the bad side always coming from the head side of the sheep. The objective of heating and squeezing the horn in small sections is to try and fill the concave side of the horn. Once this is done, experience will bring the knowledge of when the point of no return is reached. It is then time to form the horn into the relevant shape.

Always remember too much heat and the horn will become brittle and too little heat and the horn will not compress or bend as you want it to. One of the major problems in making the heads of sticks from sheep horn is the fact that the horn has a "memory" of its original state and any heating or bending encourages that portion of horn to return to that state. This is also true, to a lesser degree, of the shanks.

In the past, the shepherds only used the solid end part of the horn, Norman discovered that by using two halves of an old bearing sleeve, the core hole could be closed up and make more horn available for use. The tip of the horn is solid and the core hole is the growing part connected to the skull. It may be necessary to cut the tip off the horn to get the sleeve in, but that is usually going to be discard anyhow. It is also advisable to heat the sleeve as well as the horn to compress the core hole and also to put a metal rod in the core hole to stop the horn folding in on itself. Thick leather gloves are recommended as are three hands.

Once the horn is squeezed and shaped to the required proportions, then it is time to prepare the joint portion of the stick, the "marriage" on the stick diagram. Looking at the stick from the back, it must be at a 180 degree angle to the shank and heel of the head, but looking from the side view, it can either be at 180 degrees or slope back towards the heel. The "marriage" should be below the nose of the stick. A hole of two to three inches is then drilled into the heel of the horn, and a metal rod is glued into this hole with a protrusion of two to three inches that will fit into a hole drilled into the shank. The rod I use is continuous thread bolt five eighths of an inch in diameter, which provides a good key for the two part epoxy resin glue which everyone now uses for this purpose.

After the glue is set, one is able to shape the head using rasps and files and care is needed to ensure that too much horn is not removed, because it cannot be replaced. It is at this point that a decision is made as to whether there is enough horn on the heel or nose to do any decorative carving. It is always best to try, if you make a mess of it, then you can remove the carving and end up with a plain stick. Remember, any carving must come out of the original horn, nothing is glued on. A small hole is then drilled at the bottom of the shank glue hole to allow the excess glue to escape, otherwise the shank might split.

One of Norman's stories illustrates the dedication of a master stickmaker. Norman used to keep bantam hens and one day a fox got one of the cockerels. He thought that this would be a good subject for a stick, so he started to make a one--but when he got to the cockerel carving, he need to borrow a cockerel from a neighbour to get it right. He was working in the kitchen of the farmhouse using the cockerel as a model and was so engrossed in his work that it wasn't until the cockerel started crowing, waking up the entire household, that he realised it was morning.

Competitions and demonstrations are held at agricultural shows throughout the U.K., but principally in the Border Region. In addition, there are evening classes where people are taught to make sticks and these classes are usually over subscribed.

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Did Ewe Know?

The most asked homework question in our email was: What is wool made of?
Answer: Wool is a natural protein fiber composed of keratin-type protein that grows from the follicles of the sheep's skin. The proteins contain five elements: carbon, hydrogen, oxygen, nitrogen and sulfur. These five elements are combined into 19 amino acids linked together in ladder-like polypeptide chains.

American Wool Council

Just how much wool is in a baseball?
With the baseball spring training season upon us and the regular season not far behind, one might wonder (or not) just how much wool is in a baseball. (Listen up Regis, this might be a question/answer for your next millionaire.) The answer is, according to Yale University professor of physics Robert K. Adair, 121 yards of blue-gray wool yarn, 45 yards of white wool yarn, along with 150 yards of fine cotton yarn. Batter up!

American Sheep Industry Association

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by Winnie Bergere

The Origin of Our Favourite Species
Reprinted by kind permission of the author and publisher after appearing in the Spring 1998 issue of Sheep Canada, published quarterly by B&L Publishing, Editor Cathy Gallivan, Suite 438, 11215 Jasper Ave., Edmonton, AB T5K 0L5

Sheep, it would seem, have been there for us since time immemorial. Pick up any musty old history book and you're bound to stumble over a reference to sheep. Poets, past and present, love popping them into their verse. Ancient tapestries and frescos have depicted them. They've been sung about, and to this day, are the brunt of many a fine joke. Sheep go back a long way!

It is thought that, after the dog, sheep were possibly the second animal to be domesticated. Somewhere, between 8000 and 6000 B.C., a mesolithic dude, bent on a career change, set about capturing and taming some wild sheep; thus becoming the first shepherd. The idea caught on and by 5000 B.C. sheep were fully domesticated. Flocks, in all corners of the world evolved to suit the needs of their people and their terrain.

Four types of primitive sheep still remain in the world. They are the mouflon of Europe and Asia Minor, the urial of western Asia and Afghanistan, the argali of central Asia and our very own bighorn of North America and northern Asia. With the exception of the bighorn, who's always been a bit of a snob and has refused to mingle, these sheep represent the origins of present day flocks.

The Romans are credited with the development of the white woolled sheep. By 1500 A.D., there was documented proof of the existence of the fine woolled Merino in Spain, but due to a prior news blackout the actual creation of the Merino remains a mystery. Whatever the origins, the Spaniards knew they had a good thing going in the Merino and forbade their export until 1765 when the King sent some, as a gift, to pals in Germany.

Meanwhile, back on the British Isles, sheep were evolving also. Neolithic tourists, arriving in Britain between 6000 and 3000 B.C. apparently brought their sheep along for a boo and liking it, they stayed. Later, the Romans imported their white faced sheep. By the Middle Ages, long woolled, white faced sheep inhabited the lowland areas, while mixed sheep with finer and shorter wool were kept in the hill country. Wool brought power and wealth to England for 700 years, giving way to an increasing demand for meat in the 1500's. In the 1800's changes in traditional British sheep breeds brought about the New Leicester and the Southdown breeds. The Merino, coupled with these new British breeds became the basis of most modern day sheep.

In 1493, some adventurous little Spanish churro sheep sailed to North America with Columbus. After 1800, the flourishing sheep grazing industry of the east coastal U.S. was strengthened by the importation of European Merinos. In the 1840's, yet more adventurous sheep accompanied the early wagon trains westward on the Oregon Trail.

Australia's incredible sheep industry began with the sheep who arrived with the First Fleet in 1788 and with South African Merinos, imported in 1797. By 1800 there were 6,000 head of sheep. Eighty years later, Australia's flock comprised 60 million head. Evidently the Aussies took their "woolies" seriously.

French speaking sheep arrived in Canada at the first permanent settlement in "new France" in 1604. Importations of British breeds later contributed to the existence of the two solitudes and ultimately to our present day constitutional wrangling. Sheep numbers continued to grow, nonetheless, and in 1965, we reached one million head, most of whom were fluently bilingual.

Today, sheep of infinite variety are scattered over the globe. They've fed and clothed mankind since way back when. And we shepherds are still trying to convince them that they are domesticated now. Some things never change!

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Home on the Range
by Nancy Weidel, Historian Department of State Parks & Cultural Resources State Historic Preservation Office, State of Wyoming

It's hard to imagine Wyoming without the sheepwagon, which played such an important role in the state's once large sheep industry. One hundred and ten years after its introduction, the sheep wagon can still be seen in parts of the state, a lonely silhouette on a desolate landscape.

Large bands of sheep once fed on the grass and sagebrush of Wyoming; in the yearly grazing cycle, sheep often moved hundreds of miles, from the winter range of the lower elevations to the summer range in the mountains. A sheepherder followed the bands of sheep to watch over them. Due to Wyoming's harsh weather, the herder needed protection on the open range from the snow and winds of winter and the mountain storms of summer.

The sheepwagon became the perfect home for the herder: 11 feet long and 6-1/2 feet wide, enclosed by a canvas top, with a stove for heat and cooking. It was mo bile, a most important feature. Teams of horses pulled the compact, efficient wagon over vast grazing areas. The herder and sheep lived in remote locations; the camptender, who delivered supplies every ten days or so, might be the herder's only contact with civilization for months at a time.

A number of people have noted the striking similarity between the interior of a sheepwagon and a sailing vessel, which also served as a compact housing unit. Rans Baker, a contemporary Rawlins historian, tells of two old sheepherders in the area, both former sailors, who finally felt at home herding sheep on the Red Desert, which they described "like being on a dry sea". The similarities of a boat's cabin to the interior of a sheepwagon are remarkable. Both have well-designed storage places. Many pleasure boats have benches on either side of the main cabin that open to contain still more storage. Compact beds are tucked away under the bow. Tables fold down when not in use. Ever ything has its place in a boat as in a sheepwagon.

The Wyoming sheep industry developed during the 1870s in the southeastern part of the state along the Union Pacific Railroad. James Candlish, a blacksmith from Rawlins, Wyoming is often credited with the invention of the sheepwagon in 1884, although others believe the wagon was not "invented" so much as it evolved from English, European, and military antecedents. The Schulte Hardware Company of Casper, Wyoming modified Candlish's "Home on Wheels" and sheepwagons became standardized around 1900. As sheep production increased during the twentieth century, blacksmiths all around the state built sheepwagons for sheep ranchers, who might own as many as twenty wagons.

Commercial manufacture of sheepwagons began at this same time, one could purchase a sheepwagon from the Studebaker Company of Indiana or Wisconsin's Bain Manufacturing, but the tradition of local building of the wagons by blacksmiths and carpenters predominated and continued into the 1950s. Older wagons were updated; rubber tires replaced original wooden wheels and sheet metal, rather than canvas, covered the bow-top. Many of the sheepwagons one sees today are seventy years or older and reflect this conversion.

By 1910, Wyoming boasted 5-1/2 million sheep; one sheepwagon and herder cared for as many as 3,000 sheep. Although it is not possible to determine how many sheepwagons existed at the height of the sheep industry, oldtimers tell of seeing one on every hill top on the winter range, and it was not uncommon to have twenty or thirty wagons and herders gathered at the foot of the summer mountain range, waiting their turn on the sheep trail.

World War II changed the Wyoming sheep industry. Finding good help became a problem as former sheepherders found better paying jobs elsewhere. Sheep ranchers began to fence their large tracts of private land and left the sheep without a herder. The pick up truck had an enormous impact; it replaced the teams of horses that pulled the wagon, and the rancher could more easily check on his untended flocks by traversing the rough terrain in newly developed four-wheel drive vehicles.

The state's sheep industry has gradually declined in the last thirty years, from 2,360,000 sheep in 1960 to only 620,000 in 1994. Sheepwagons are still used in southwestern Wyoming and the Big Horn Basin, but elsewhere they are more likely to be seen abandoned in a lonely setting. During the past decade, sheepwagons were bought and restored, sold to tourists for high dollars, and used as a guest room or a yard ornament. One can interpret this trend as an attempt to preserve the most important cultural artifact of the sheep industry: the sheepwagon.

A cottage industry has developed in Wyoming and nearby states in recent years. Individuals are buying sheepwagons and renovating them for high resale value. The restored, often totally rebuilt wagons with gleaming deluxe interiors, have been removed from their original context. They have acquired a new function as a guest room, an office, a child's playroom, a decorative yard ornament, or an expensive piece of trendy western memorabilia for the wealthy.

The sheepwagon is a marvel of practicality and compactness. The interior configuration proved so efficient that 110 years after its "invention", the same basic plan is used in the few sheepwagons made today. Whether by design or accident, the sheepwagon interior also served as the model for many modern campers. One can begin to appreciate the durability of the sheepwagon's interior design when it is contrasted with the changes in residential floor plans that have occurred over the past one hundred years, a gradual evolution from small enclosed rooms to large open living areas. The sheepwagon retained its original interior configuration because the space worked so efficiently.

The sheepwagon, once scorned by those outside of the industry, is being transformed, like the cowboy before it, into a romantic symbol of Wyoming and the Old West. It seems the further the working sheepwagon recedes into our past, the more popular it has be come as an icon.

Sheepwagons pop up in many places - on a café placemat, as Christmas ornaments or mailboxes, on postcards and notecards, a logo for the Wyoming Wool Growers. Old sheepwagons are being recycled for advertising purposes, as a novelty accommmodation at a dude ranch, in rodeo parades, as Welcome Wagons on the outskirts of a small town, or an information booth at Cheyenne Frontier Days. Like an arrowhead that represents an earlier culture and relates something of the history of a time and place, maybe the sheepwagon, as the most important cultural artifact and symbol of the historic sheep industry, will serve a similar purpose, as a vehicle to tell the story.

Nancy Weidel's book "Sheepwagon: Home on the Range" is available from High Plains Press, P.O. Box 123, Glendo, Wyoming 82213.


Wyoming Territory displays photos of custom built, restored, and museum quality sheepwagons on their vivid and well designed website. Check out No. 31, a green and gold masterpiece of 1890's vintage, originally built for Wyoming's Big Horn Basin.

The West: Episode Eight (1998-1914) "P.S. I Like You Very Much". Honeymoon sheepwagon on Muskrat Creek? Read about it on this colorful page of love letters written to the schoolteacher with the Ivy League education from her suitor, a Scottish sheepman who dreamed of becoming a sheep baron or "mutton-aire" near Lander, Wyoming.

Off the Beaten Path from Cliff Naylor of KFYR-TV, Channel 5, in North Dakota introduces you to Dale Donner. Donner is a covered wagon craftsman who also builds wooden sheepwagons that sleep four and have woodburning stoves. Hit the Real Audio video Enabled button to hear and see him in action, nailing classic wagons together with one of today's power tools.

The Original Sheepcamp Birdhouse by Seven Stars Artworks of Heber, Utah is a fully functional birdhouse, handmade of pine and tin, advertised as "easy to clean". It can be ordered in olive green, barn red, or blue in large, small, or custom versions possessing more detail.

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