Shearing Sheep

The first year we had sheep (five of them) Pa got hold of an old sheep shears, tied the sheep's feet together, and snipped off the wool himself. He had awfully poor shears, and one sheep took him about half a day. [26.168-3]

When we had a few sheep, we would take the wool to the Fergus Falls woolen mill and trade it for woolen clothing or cash. They processed the wool right there on East Lincoln Avenue and wove a lot of their own woolen goods. The whole place smelled like a wool warehouse and there was a lot of machinery running all the time in the back half of the building. [26.168-4]

After the first year, Clifford Monson imported an old sheep shearer and we had him do them for a few years, for 10 cents apiece. John Pearson was an old more or less toothless Swedish cowboy from South Dakota. His Swedish dialect was from Skaaning, Sweden, and everybody called him John Skaaning.

He could only speak a little broken English, but mostly that weird Swede dialect so we kids weren't supposed to be able to understand him (luckily). Poor Pa could understand Swedish, so he had to listen to incessant chatter, mostly about girls he had loved and lost, all day long. [26.168-5]

John was so old and crippled he had to have help to hold the sheep most of the time. Sometimes Pa had to leave and Marj or I would have to help him. He didn't like that because we couldn't understand him, so he couldn't talk, except for simple directions like "hold head," or "hold leg," etc. [26.168-6]

"John Skaaning" never washed his clothes, just begged old underwear and overalls, etc. from the people he sheared for and threw the dirty ones away. He never changed clothes until he found someone to give him some clean ones. He only asked for old rags to wear and he was quite short, so he sure had some big cuffs on his clothes when he wore the old clothes Ma gave him. Pa was about a foot taller than the old Swede. [26.168-7]

We were getting more sheep every year and he could only shear about 20 a day, so he had to stay overnight, too. Then the one he sheared for would take him to the next place.

He ate off his knife, mostly, instead of his fork. After I saw him take butter with the same knife once, I never ate butter for days after he had been there, until I was positive that chunk that was on the table when he ate there was used up. [26.169-1]

It wasn't that I was so fussy when I ate. I could shear sheep with maggots on them and eat lunch without washing first and I could skin skunks and eat at the same time, but I couldn't eat lunch and watch John Skaaning eat at the same time. (A lot of farm women would send out lunch to us, but nothing to wash with.) [26.169-2]

I guess the Martin Huggetts had about all the Swede sheep shearer they could stand, too, because Kenneth Huggett started to learn how, and he sheared our sheep. He had an extra pair of hand shears with him so I borrowed it and started to learn, too, by watching him. When I had sheared enough sheep to save the equivalent of new shears ($2.50) I got my own and soon got old enough and good enough to take over the sheep shearing. [26.169-3]

Sheep were getting more numerous all over the country; everybody was getting them to help clear their land of brush (and berry bushes). [26.169-4]

Sheep shearers were springing up all over, too. Carl Pearson was shearing with a gas-powered machine around Battle Lake and he wanted a new, improved model, so that spring he traded us his used machine for the muskrat trapping rights on my grandmother's lakeshore. He said I could shear much faster by machine, and I was getting to be his main competitor so I was surprised that he would do anything to help me take more jobs. [26.169-5]

When I tried the machine, luckily a while before the shearing season, I found a really important (but small) part missing from it. I always figured that was a "put up deal," but I got the parts catalog and got the piece that was missing. I always wondered if he wondered how I got it to work. [26.169-6]

I saw an advertisement for a nearly new Briggs and Stratton washing machine engine down by Alexandria where they were converting to electric washing machines then. I used that engine to shear sheep until our area got R.E.A. power, too. [26.169-7]

The first year I made enough with the old machine to buy the new, improved, latest model sheep shearing machine, too, and was soon shearing in a big area. Some farms had electricity and some didn't yet, so we mounted the machine on a board with a gas engine on one end and an electric motor on the other end. We could put the "belt" on either one. [26.170-1]

Shearing sheep is the hardest work I have ever done. It uses every muscle you have. If you work in a cool place or in a draft you get stiff, and if you're in a closed area the ammonia fumes from the sheep are terrible. [26.170-2]

All sheep shearers prided themselves on how many they could shear in one day and most of them started about 6 a.m. to get in a good day. My record for one day was 130 from 12 noon until 11 p.m. on a hot June day, shearing outside. After we hung up lights to shear by, the bugs almost ate us alive. [26.170-3]

After the first year around a neighborhood, it was quite a problem to figure out the schedule the next year. By then I knew where the best cooks and cleanest houses were. There were a lot of small flocks and the problem was to hit the poor places between meals. Some of those places made me really appreciate how good I had it at home. [26.170-4]

We usually carried a bucket along with a bottle of coffee and some lunch in case the farmer's wife didn't send out any. Merle and Virgil Olson had some sheep when they were kids and the day we sheared them we were looking forward to dinner. Their mother had the kind of place where you wanted to eat.

Almost at noon their uncle came out and asked us if we had our dinner with us. We said No! Well, he said, Elaine (who was just a little kid then) had looked in our jalopy and told her mother we had dinner with us because we had a dinner bucket along. [26.170-5]