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Sheepherders flock to party on West Desert

©Millard County Chronicle Progress
January 26, 2006

By Dean Draper

The third annual “Old Sheepherder’s Party” was held at the Border Inn on the Utah/Nevada state line on Friday, Jan. 20.


Food, fun and story swapping attracted a people to the annual Sheepherders gathering at the Border Inn.

Lamb and mutton, what else, were served to over 100 people attending the party co-sponsored by the Great Basin Heritage Area Partnership and the Border Inn.

Sheepmen, sheepherders, government trappers and members of their families gathered to share old times with each other. They swapped stories, poems, lies, and nuggets of unrecorded history. These stories are being preserved by the Heritage Area.

Unique to the western Utah and eastern Nevada are the sheepherders of mostly Scandinavian descent. Many herders winter and wintered their northern and central Utah flocks out in the vicinity of the state line. The Snake Valley providing lots of open solitude for men to think and sheep to graze in during the winter.

This year’s party included invitations to the Basque sheepherders in White Pine County as well as the predominantly Scandinavian herders of central Utah utilizing the Snake Valley.

Eldon Johnson, Nephi, started his herding career at age 16 in 1937. He herded sheep for three and one half years before looking elsewhere.

Johnson was living in Fountain Green and had decided not to return to school in the fall of 1937. He was approached by the local truant officer and told he needed to be back at school. Johnson said he got an offer to herd sheep that same day and accepted it.

His new employer, Henry Jackson the truant officer, met him in Nephi and took him out to the west desert. He equipped him with a dog and gave him instructions weekly on where to graze the sheep.

Asked if he ever got lonely, Johnson said: “It never bothered me. I just didn't get lonely. After three and one half years I decided I'd better go and see my family.”

Johnson didn’t return to tend the flocks, but enlisted with a friend in the Navy.

Johnson is proud of his public service. While out on the desert he met up with Bob Aagard who proclaimed Johnson the mayor of Tule Valley as he spent so much time there.

“I’m the mayor of Tule Valley for life and preside over my constituency of no one,” said Johnson.

Peruvian sheepherders have contributed to the history of the desert.

“I started herding sheep in Callao when I was 19 years old,” said Francisco Colqui, a native of Peru and now living in Hinckley. “I didn’t speak a word of English. I was one of the first sheepherders from Peru.”

Colqui eventually learned English, gave up sheepherding, got married and started a family. He is now employed by Millard County.

Elvon Holman used to trail his sheep about 250 miles from Skyline Drive to the west desert for the winter. His sons Arden and John accompanied him to the party to re-visit the area so loved by their father.

Part of sheepherding is varmint control. Government trappers were called in to eliminate offending predators. Van Warnick of Deseret was one of those trappers and came to enjoy the party.

“I trapped and hunted as a government trapper for 26 years,” said Warnick. “In the winter time I was gunner in Fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters. We were after trouble coyotes, not just any coyotes.”

Several representatives of the media were at the Border Inn to record as much of what was happening as possible. The Chronicle Progress was joined by the Sanpete Messenger, the Deseret News, and the Salt Lake Tribune.

Hal Cannon, Western folklorist, canvassed the crowd to record stories for National Public Radio. Dave Tilford, Great Basin Heritage Area, recorded histories on video and tape as did Dr. Kevin Marie Laxalt from Nevada. She was on hand to record the Basque influence on White Pine County.

“In Utah, at one time, there were 300,000 head of sheep. Now you’re lucky to scare up a 1000,” said Tilford. “We’re taping and recording people’s accounts of sheepherder. they are to be shared with the University of Nevada Reno’s Oral History Department and with the Utah Humanities Council.”

“The response to the ‛Old Sheepherder’s Party’ has been remarkable,” said Denys Koyle, owner of the Border Inn. “It keeps getting bigger every year. We’re here to not only honor the people who worked here, but to record their experiences before they are lost.”

 

 

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