Sheep Industry of Northern Nevada
Like other Northern Nevada industries, sheep ranching has had its boom and bust eras. Many sheep empires have risen and fallen, with few enduring more than a few decades. Those ranchers who have been most successful have had their share of luck as well as business skills and ranching talents. The prices for mutton, wool and lambs have fluctuated wildly over the years, in concert with mining activity, general economic conditions, and synthetic fibers. Grazing restrictions on public lands put nomadic outfits out of business; surviving ranchers were those who acquired land and grazing permits. When labor shortages plagued the sheep outfits during and after World War II, ranchers came together to change immigration regulations and recruit herders from other parts of the world, notably the Basque Country. Severe droughts and snowstorms often cut into livestock profits; but sheep ranchers generally had fewer weather-related losses than cattle ranchers. Some of Nevada's most successful livestock operations have included both cattle and sheep, for good measure. Resilient sheepmen (and women) met all challenges that came their way.
To succeed in the Nevada world of sheep, boss and flockmaster had to be keen judges of men as well as sheep, dogs, and land.— Clel Georgetta, Golden Fleece in Nevada.
Sheep have always played an important role in the economic history of Nevada. Family-run sheep ranches, large and small, have been and continue to be valued businesses in rural areas of the state, although the industry has declined by 40% since the 1970s. Many prominent Nevada families got their start in the sheep business, and the thriving Basque communities of Northern Nevada owe their origins to sheep ranching. An online photo collection documents almost 80 years of the sheep industry in Northern Nevada. For more information, consult a historical outline of the sheep industry in Nevada.
Stories: Interviews and Oral Histories
- Frenchie Gaillard bought and sold 30 million pounds of wool between 1931 and 1961. In this audio interview, he described his life in the sheep industry of Nevada.
- Robert Laxalt discussed his family's experiences in the sheep industry in Northern Nevada in this audio interview.
- Members of the Landa family recall their sheep operation in the Reno area in this video interview.
- Nevada Nomads by Byrd Wall Sawyer recounts the history of sheep in Nevada. Published by Harlan-Young Press in 1971.
- Beltran: Basque Sheepman of the American West by Beltran Paris as told to William A. Douglass. Born in the Basque Country, Beltran Paris came to the U.S. to heard sheep and eventually owned one of the largest sheep ranches in Nevada. Published by University of Nevada, Press, 1985.
More Information and Activities
- Sheep Industry in Northern Nevada photo collection
- Sheep in Nevada, a chronology
- Historical Agricultural Publications on Nevada sheep ranching, 1901-1971
- Sheepherding life
- Sheepdogs, ranchers' best friends
- Operation Haylift
- Photos by Linda Dufurrena at her sheep ranch near Winnemucca
- Sagebrush Vernacular: Architecture of Rural Nevada online exhibit
- Sheep Ranching in the American West resources at the Western Folklife Museum in Elko
- Basque Ranching Culture in the Great Basin by Mike Laughlin, photos by Lee Raine