Tending Their Flocks

From earlier Gazette editions:

It is recorded that when Major General Sir Charles Grey made his raid upon the Vineyard during the Revolution he requisitioned 10,000 sheep and 300 oxen, together with hay for them. Apparently 10,574 sheep were actually supplied, under duress, to the British, the quotas of the different towns being as follows: Chilmark, 3,903; Edgartown, 3,919; Tisbury, 2,752.

Lucky for the Island that it does not have to meet such a requisition today! But the figure makes brave reading. It is something to know that there was a time when so many sheep grazed in the pastures of the Vineyard. The subject comes to mind now because of the project of F.A. Paris, who is turning his Katama property to an old use and developing a sheep ranch. We hope that this is a sign of a new revival of this industry on Martha’s Vineyard. In 1935 there were only 523 sheep on the whole Island, surely as near the zero level as a once famous sheep producing community should come.

It has been said in years past that Vineyard mutton was preeminent for flavor, the salt spray in the pastures giving the mutton a tang not found in the inland districts. Those who have enjoyed the Island mutton are quick to agree. What can be done today in developing both wool and mutton we do not know, but there seems never to have been a more promising place to apply new methods and to introduce new flocks.

It is hard for the present generation to realize how far short we fall from producing what we should. To those who would promote a sound year-round economy here, the example of the sheep must be illuminating. In 1778 the Island could supply more than 10,000 sheep and still have breeding stock left; in 1935 the whole Island could muster only 523 sheep. But now the number is rising again, and one hopes for a renewal of the old era. (1939)

Charles G. Norton, the Island shepherd of the hills, landed at Oak Bluffs on Saturday afternoon at the head, or tail, of a sheep band of 249 ewes, shipped from Texas. The band included 250 sheep, at the start. “I had understood,” says Charles, “that Texas livestock were a hard-boiled breed, that the ewes purposely lived on spiny cactus in order that their offspring might derive the proper spirit and fortitude from their earliest nourishment. But one of the ewes was so cast down at the thought of leaving her native state that she went into a quick decline before starting.”

The steamboat men were rather taken aback at the prospects of transporting the largest flock of sheep ever to come to the Island in a single trip and improvised a corral in the hold. The “woollies” pined for their home on the range as no cowboy ever did. However, they have found the flavor of Vineyard clover and meadow grass quite as much to their taste as Texas alfalfa. (1941)

“She walks — the lady of my delight — a shepherdess of sheep,” sang the poet Alice Meynell a good many years ago. On Sunday, the Little Lady of Lennie Jason’s delight sailed, a seagoing shepherdesss — and brought 29 of the animals from Hadley’s Harbor on Naushon across the Sound to Menemsha.

The sheep were purchased from the Forbes family on Naushon by Everett Whiting whose own flocks were decimated by dogs over the past year. It was arranged with the Jason family to bring them over on their dragger, the Little Lady, with Dennis Jason as captain, and Lee Merkovic as his mate. The whole operation was accomplished smoothly and without incident, and much more speedily than was anticipated.

The Sound was fortunately calm, but even so Captain Jason thought it wise not to set up the sheep pen on deck until after he had maneuvered through Woods Hole. Once the boat was tied up at Hadley’s Harbor, however, the plywood pen was put up and the sheep that had been waiting in a trailer on the wharf walked decorously down a ramp into it.

There were six assistant shepherds with Mr. Whiting — his wife, his daughter, Prudie, his son, Danny, his niece Susan, and John Athearn, and Philip Spaulding. But the sheep never uttered a single baa and none suffered from seasickness. There was one anxious moment coming into the jetties at Menemsha, when the turbulence from the fast-running tide caused the whole pen to shift about a foot, but the boat made the bulkhead without mishap. There, the sheep were lifted out of the dragger individually and lugged to a waiting truck, an awkward-appearing procedure that takes considerable know-how on the part of the lugger. The usual number of Menemsha observers was on hand, and quite a few did astonished double-takes when they saw what was being unloaded was furred rather than finned. Mr. Jason commented that while he has carried dogs and chickens before, as well as fish, this was the first time his cargo had consisted of sheep.

Compiled by Cynthia Meisner