by Nancy Weidel, Historian Department of State Parks & Cultural Resources State Historic Preservation Office, State of Wyoming
It's hard to imagine Wyoming without the sheepwagon, which played such an important role in the state's once large sheep industry. One hundred and ten years after its introduction, the sheep wagon can still be seen in parts of the state, a lonely silhouette on a desolate landscape.
Large bands of sheep once fed on the grass and sagebrush of Wyoming; in the yearly grazing cycle, sheep often moved hundreds of miles, from the winter range of the lower elevations to the summer range in the mountains. A sheepherder followed the bands of sheep to watch over them. Due to Wyoming's harsh weather, the herder needed protection on the open range from the snow and winds of winter and the mountain storms of summer.
The sheepwagon became the perfect home for the herder: 11 feet long and 6-1/2 feet wide, enclosed by a canvas top, with a stove for heat and cooking. It was mo bile, a most important feature. Teams of horses pulled the compact, efficient wagon over vast grazing areas. The herder and sheep lived in remote locations; the camptender, who delivered supplies every ten days or so, might be the herder's only contact with civilization for months at a time.
A number of people have noted the striking similarity between the interior of a sheepwagon and a sailing vessel, which also served as a compact housing unit. Rans Baker, a contemporary Rawlins historian, tells of two old sheepherders in the area, both former sailors, who finally felt at home herding sheep on the Red Desert, which they described "like being on a dry sea". The similarities of a boat's cabin to the interior of a sheepwagon are remarkable. Both have well-designed storage places. Many pleasure boats have benches on either side of the main cabin that open to contain still more storage. Compact beds are tucked away under the bow. Tables fold down when not in use. Ever ything has its place in a boat as in a sheepwagon.
The Wyoming sheep industry developed during the 1870s in the southeastern part of the state along the Union Pacific Railroad. James Candlish, a blacksmith from Rawlins, Wyoming is often credited with the invention of the sheepwagon in 1884, although others believe the wagon was not "invented" so much as it evolved from English, European, and military antecedents. The Schulte Hardware Company of Casper, Wyoming modified Candlish's "Home on Wheels" and sheepwagons became standardized around 1900. As sheep production increased during the twentieth century, blacksmiths all around the state built sheepwagons for sheep ranchers, who might own as many as twenty wagons.
Commercial manufacture of sheepwagons began at this same time, one could purchase a sheepwagon from the Studebaker Company of Indiana or Wisconsin's Bain Manufacturing, but the tradition of local building of the wagons by blacksmiths and carpenters predominated and continued into the 1950s. Older wagons were updated; rubber tires replaced original wooden wheels and sheet metal, rather than canvas, covered the bow-top. Many of the sheepwagons one sees today are seventy years or older and reflect this conversion.
By 1910, Wyoming boasted 5-1/2 million sheep; one sheepwagon and herder cared for as many as 3,000 sheep. Although it is not possible to determine how many sheepwagons existed at the height of the sheep industry, oldtimers tell of seeing one on every hill top on the winter range, and it was not uncommon to have twenty or thirty wagons and herders gathered at the foot of the summer mountain range, waiting their turn on the sheep trail.
World War II changed the Wyoming sheep industry. Finding good help became a problem as former sheepherders found better paying jobs elsewhere. Sheep ranchers began to fence their large tracts of private land and left the sheep without a herder. The pick up truck had an enormous impact; it replaced the teams of horses that pulled the wagon, and the rancher could more easily check on his untended flocks by traversing the rough terrain in newly developed four-wheel drive vehicles.
The state's sheep industry has gradually declined in the last thirty years, from 2,360,000 sheep in 1960 to only 620,000 in 1994. Sheepwagons are still used in southwestern Wyoming and the Big Horn Basin, but elsewhere they are more likely to be seen abandoned in a lonely setting. During the past decade, sheepwagons were bought and restored, sold to tourists for high dollars, and used as a guest room or a yard ornament. One can interpret this trend as an attempt to preserve the most important cultural artifact of the sheep industry: the sheepwagon.
A cottage industry has developed in Wyoming and nearby states in recent years. Individuals are buying sheepwagons and renovating them for high resale value. The restored, often totally rebuilt wagons with gleaming deluxe interiors, have been removed from their original context. They have acquired a new function as a guest room, an office, a child's playroom, a decorative yard ornament, or an expensive piece of trendy western memorabilia for the wealthy.
The sheepwagon is a marvel of practicality and compactness. The interior configuration proved so efficient that 110 years after its "invention", the same basic plan is used in the few sheepwagons made today. Whether by design or accident, the sheepwagon interior also served as the model for many modern campers. One can begin to appreciate the durability of the sheepwagon's interior design when it is contrasted with the changes in residential floor plans that have occurred over the past one hundred years, a gradual evolution from small enclosed rooms to large open living areas. The sheepwagon retained its original interior configuration because the space worked so efficiently.
The sheepwagon, once scorned by those outside of the industry, is being transformed, like the cowboy before it, into a romantic symbol of Wyoming and the Old West. It seems the further the working sheepwagon recedes into our past, the more popular it has be come as an icon.
Sheepwagons pop up in many places - on a café placemat, as Christmas ornaments or mailboxes, on postcards and notecards, a logo for the Wyoming Wool Growers. Old sheepwagons are being recycled for advertising purposes, as a novelty accommmodation at a dude ranch, in rodeo parades, as Welcome Wagons on the outskirts of a small town, or an information booth at Cheyenne Frontier Days. Like an arrowhead that represents an earlier culture and relates something of the history of a time and place, maybe the sheepwagon, as the most important cultural artifact and symbol of the historic sheep industry, will serve a similar purpose, as a vehicle to tell the story.
Nancy Weidel's book "Sheepwagon: Home on the Range" is available from High Plains Press, P.O. Box 123, Glendo, Wyoming 82213.