The sheep industry transformed Vermont and New England’s landscape. The Merino sheep grazed on the hills and in the valleys and became known worldwide for their fine wool. Today the hills of Vermont are dotted with many old cellar holes and stonewalls that date back to this thriving period. One can also see many of the old mill building sites that still exist throughout New England. These mills played an important role in the woolen industry during the years between 1810 and 1870. It was here that the wool was processed into finished goods. Much has been written about this period and can be found in town records, Historical Society documents, and other material. What brought about this change from subsistence farming to industrial agriculture, and in particular to the sheep industry, is the subject of this weekly blog. (A question that might be asked is how do these events of the past relate to what is happening in our Vermont and Northeast dairy industry today?)
WILLIAM JARVIS, Former Consul to Portugal and resident of Wethersfield, Vermont:
In some books William Jarvis has been called an “evangelist” for the Merino sheep, or an early “Ben and Jerry’s” of the sheep industry. His history, both as Consul to Portugal and eventually as a resident of Weathersfield, is well documented. In reading the material written about him, it is clear that he was a well established business person from a very prominent Boston family, very well connected in the highest levels of government. Jarvis had an early business failure, but with the help of his father he re-established himself. He went on to create and run a successful international trading firm, and in this capacity he became very well connected with government officials and business leaders throughout Europe. Because of these connections, President Jefferson appointed him Consul to Lisbon Portugal.
Why Merino Sheep?
The Merino sheep had been bred for their fine fleece and were the sheep of the “hills”. For many years they had been protected by Spain from export as a way to sustain the price of fine wool. However, with the invasion of Spain by Napoleon, there was concern about the plight of the prized sheep. Jarvis took advantage of this political and military unrest, and his connections in 1809 to ship some of these prized animals to the Untied States. While he was not the first to do so (a Colonel Humphreys, Consul to Spain, seven years earlier had shipped some to his farm in Connecticut and also to a farm in Westminster, Vermont), he was the first to become an advocate for their advancement in the U.S. According to information published in 1879 by the Vermont Merino Sheep Breeders Association, some 15,767 Merino sheep arrived throughout the East Coast from Spain for the period of 1810-1811. Boston had twenty-nine vessels carrying a total of 2048 sheep; New York had 52 vessels totaling 9,349 sheep; Philadelphia had four vessels totaling 389 sheep; other ships went to Norfolk, Virginia, New Haven, Connecticut; Portland, Maine; and Providence, Rhode Island. (When he shipped the sheep he sent some as a gift to Jefferson).
Why Did Jarvis Come to Vermont?
According to historic information, Jarvis actually was looking for a location in Virginia to bring his sheep, but he had an uncle and a cousin that lived in Claremont, New Hampshire. They suggested a farm across the river in Weathersfield, Vermont, which Jarvis purchased upon his return from Spain. It is stated that he brought approximately 3500 sheep to Weathersfield along with shepherds, and dogs as well as other animals. He purchased and cleared additional acreage around this farm and soon became known as a “ zealot” for the advancement of the Marino sheep breed in the United States. In addition to raising the sheep, he traveled around the country speaking to the merits of the Marino and their wool. He even employed a network of merchants for selling wool, and became a part owner and investor in a textile mill in Quechee, Vermont.
What Fueled the Sheep Craze?
The war of 1812 and the Jefferson embargo raised wool prices to $2.50 per pound as imports were blocked, and trade paralyzed. Mills needed product and the fine fleece of the Merino’s were in great demand. While Vermont had sheep before this time, and woolen mills too, the wool was not the quality of the Merino. Jarvis helped fuel the supply by lending money to farmers interested in establishing flocks and providing technical assistance. (The bloodline from his flock became the foundation of the Vermont Merinos). This period of unrest with Britain also fueled a manufacturing independence streak in the United States, especially when the war ended with the Treaty of Ghent in 1814 and British manufactured goods, especially cotton and woolen goods flooded the U.S. markets. With significant pressure on Congress and from our own Vermont delegation, and with pamphlets on the need for a tariff written by Jarvis to high-powered friends, the Tariff Act of 1823 came about. This act gave new life to the production of fine wool. It is said, “that manufacturers went from county to county offering large prices for fine wool.”
The hills and valleys of Vermont were ideal for the Merino Sheep, where grass was said to be “ king.” Many towns in Vermont had at least 1,000 sheep according to records, and Addison County had the greatest number. By 1840, the Town of Shoreham was the home to 40,000 sheep. Vermont was the sheep capital of the world by this time with 1.6 million sheep. It is said, “it was the Vermont soil, Vermont climate, and the Yankee skill” that made the state an ideal place for this industry to thrive. “The Merino sheep breeders of Addison County have achieved for themselves…an enviable reputation and the whole world has come to buy of them and fabulous prices have been received.” Vermont and the Merino sheep industry were captive, however, to tariff regulations and international events and western and international competition. With pressure on the reduction on these protective tariffs, the price of wool dropped from 57 cents per pound in 1835 to 25 cents per pound in late 1840. This downward pressure on prices resulted in two thirds of the State’s sheep being killed between 1846 and1850.
This was not the end to the period of fluctuation in prices or the role of the Merino sheep in Vermont. The Civil War increased, for a time, the demand for wool for uniforms and cloths as the South had been cut off as a supply source. Also, Addison County became known for their breeding stock, which was sold around the world for good prices. The decade from 1860 to 1870 was one where Vermont farmers sent many sheep to Western States, carload after carload from the best flocks. This export is said to have decreased after western wool growers began to feel the impact of the tariff reductions in 1883. Nevertheless, Vermont farmers had achieved great success in the breeding of these animals. For example, each sheep on average yielded three times as much wool in 1870 as they had in 1840. At the International Exhibition in Hamburg, Germany in 1863, a Vermont Merino took two first prizes as having the heaviest fleece and longest wool of any of that class exhibited.
What led its Economic Decline?
Vermont’s position as a leader in producing some of the finest wool from the Merino sheep ended. This was due to many factors including tariff protection changes, western and international competition, and the cost of producing sheep on smaller farms and acreage. It was said that it cost from $1.00-$2.00s per head to produce sheep in Vermont versus $1.00 to 25 cents per head in the West. Also, any system of small flocks, such as those in Vermont, could not compete, under a reduced tariff system, with the large flocks in Australia and Argentina that could include as many as 100,000 to 400,000 sheep. The Merino sheep period changed Vermont’s landscape, it’s culture, and it’s agricultural and manufacturing industry. It would take some time for the dairy sector to bloom. Sheep did not have to be milked each day and thus required less everyday attention. Probably one of the best summaries of the agricultural economics of this period is from the Vermont Merino Sheep Breeders Association in 1879, “no farm stock except Merino sheep has been affected by such extraordinary seasons of favor, amounting to mania, when prices have been enhanced to such extraordinary fictitious values, when large numbers without qualifications or due consideration have embarked in the business of breeding them, until by the action of some unfriendly legislation it would immediately follow depressing prices…until…flocks of Merinos…crushed out and threatened with annihilation?”
How Does the Sheep Industry of the 1800’s Compare to the Dairy Industry of Today?
There have been those who have compared this period to what is happening in dairy sector today. The continuing westward migration of dairy production with very large dairy farms in several western states; an antiquated pricing system that results in wide pricing swings when national production greatly exceeds supply; lower cost of production on many western farms with subsidized water and power; a tariff system that helps protect against large imports from other countries that has been subject of WTO and bi-lateral trade negotiations to allow freer trade from lower cost of production countries like New Zealand; and dependence on Congress for changes to provide more economic equality and opportunities for Northeast dairy farmers. While there may be some similarities in this regard, I submit that differences now exist to include an interest in local and regional food production; increased costs of transportation in bringing product from more distant markets; the recognition by many that value added product production with products that meet consumer needs is the future, as well as the need for greater diversification on the farm. This recognition has resulted in the growth of farm-based and other specialty cheese and product production. Vermont also is a state that benefits from livestock agriculture that can convert grass to meat or milk, as history has demonstrated over time that grass is truly “king”. Also, Vermont farmers’ access to nearby markets and the renewed interest in local and regional foods is an encouraging trend given other similarities with the Merino sheep industry of the past.
ANSWER TO LAST WEEK’S TRIVIA QUESTION: Who was the Governor from Southern Vermont that was a farm implement inventor and the first President of the Vermont Agricultural Society?
It was Governor Fredrick Holbrook of Brattleboro who served as Governor in the early 1860’s. He invented the Holbrook Swivel Plow, considered to be one of the great improvements of the day. Governor Holbrook was also a friend of President Lincoln and an early advocate for an agency to address agricultural issues at the federal level.
THIS WEEK’S TRIVIA QUESTION: When was the first railroad in Vermont chartered by the Vermont legislature?
Sources and References for this Blog update:
- History of Vermont by Walter Hill Crockett, Vol. 3, The Century History Company, Inc. N.Y. 1921
- Vt. Historical Society, An era of change, 1820-1850, William Jarvis and the Merino Sheep Craze
- Past Times: Stories From The Sheldon Museum “Lambing Time” March 2008 by Jan Albers, Ex. Director Henry Sheldon Museum, Middlebury, VT.
- History of the First National Bank of Orwell, Vermont
- Town of Weathersfield History
- The Life and Times of Honorable William Jarvis of Weatherfield by Mary Pepperell Sparhawk Cutts, Nabu Press, 2010
- The Bleat of the Sheep, The Bark of the Tree; Vermonters and Their Landscape, A View From the Archivist, Delivered Mar. 31, 2001, Vt. Landscape Conference, Fleming Museum, in Vermont History, Vol. 70; Winter Spring 2002
- Spanish Merino Sheep, Their Importation from Spain, Introduction into Vermont and Improvement Since Introduced. Vol. 1, Published by Vermont Merino Sheep Breeders Association, 1879.
- Reports of the State Board of Agriculture for each of the following years: 1872, 1874, 1877, 1878, 1887-88, and 1888-89.
Edition 4, March 23, 2011