March 1, 2011

The rise and fall of New Hampshire Sheep Country

For about 30 years, between 1810 and 1840, NewHampshirewasthewool capital of the world,
which is why there are so many stone walls throughout the Granite State.
Union Leader Correspondent
DERRY -- Here is something you probably didn’t know about New Hampshire: 200 years ago this state was part of America’s fleece production heartland. For 30 years, it was the epicenter of the great sheep boom heard around the world.
It began in 1809, after the U.S. consul to Spain imported some merino sheep from Britain that were sold to farms around New England. That changed the genetic basis for our domestic sheep, producing wool soft enough to
 be worn comfortably close to the skin. This eventually gave rise to New England’s textile industry and mill towns, where wool production boomed — at least until railroads, cotton production, soil depletion, the Industrial Revolution, and other colliding circumstances took a toll on what, for a short time, was the best of times for sheep farmers. 

It also is how New England’s landscape became punctuated by 250,000 miles of stone walls, used during that time to corral the sheep. 
Like all those factory workers before him, Steve Taylor, retired commissioner of the state Department of Agriculture, also spins a fine yarn. His lecture, “Great Sheep Boom and its Enduring Legacy on the New Hampshire Landscape,” is a popular talk he has been presenting at local libraries and historical societies since retiring from his post as the state’s top expert on all things agrarian. 
He will be at Derry Public Library on Wednesday at 10 a.m. to spread the lore of New Hampshire’s lost sheep industry and the lingering stone walls and, hopefully, gather some new anecdotes from local historians along the way. 
“Before 1810, the woolen industry here was a cottage industry. Women of the farm spun it and made blankets and garments and cloth at home. But with the merino sheep, they were able to triple the productivity of a single sheep, so instead of producing three pounds of wool, it could produce 10. We had sheep to make money with, and hand-in-glove came the development of New Hampshire’s woolen industry,” Taylor said. 
The state’s first mill was built in Claremont in 1816. 
Others, in Ashland, Lebanon and Somersworth, followed, creating mill towns along the river. Wool sold for about $1 a pound (the equivalent today of $100 per pound), paving the way for wealthy farm families who helped build up the bricks-and-mortar foundation of the state’s rich history that persists today. 
According to the 1835 Census, which reflects the height of the wool boom, the sheep population was impressive here and numbered in the hundreds of thousands — Manchester had 452, Derry had 713, Deerfield had 2,075 and Portsmouth had 536. 
“Today there are four sheep in Portsmouth, all owned by (former executive councilor) Ruth Griffin,” said Taylor. 
Wednesday’s event is sponsored jointly by the Amoskeag Mills Questers, a local chapter of a national historic preservation organization, and the New Hampshire Humanities Council, which sponsors such lectures in an effort to help promote interest in local history. 
Taylor enjoys giving this particular lecture, which puts his vast anecdotal knowledge of the state’s agricultural history to its best use, by sharing it with others. It is truly an interactive experience. 
“Whenever I go around and do talks, someone tells me something they know from their own family lore, something they gained through the oral tradition of storytelling, that adds to my lecture and builds on what we know about this subject,” Taylor said. 
“For example, when I gave the talk in Boscawen, a woman came with a book from the 1830s that had been handed down through her family with diagrams of the various marks and brands used farm to farm to identify the different herds — a notch in the right ear for one farm or two dots of tar on the nose for another. I had never seen anything like that before, and as far as the information goes, it’s a priceless thing.” 
Wednesday’s talk is free and open to the public. Reservations are suggested but not required by calling the library at 432-6140. 

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