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Shepherds of the land

 
 
   

Published June 16, 2004

There was a time in Klamath County when sheep ruled the range

By Lee Juillerat

Most people think of the Klamath Basin as cattle country, and for good reason. Drive around outside Klamath Falls, over to Merrill, around Fort Klamath, between Canby and Alturas, near Lakeview and thousands of cattle are lazily grazing.

Jack O'Connor

But Jack O'Connor remembers when things were different, an era when sheep dominated the range.

In the early 1900s it's estimated Lake County had upwards of 350,000 sheep, while Klamath County tallied another 160,000 and Modoc County had upwards of 60,000. O'Connor's family was part of the sheep industry, at one time claiming more than 15,000 breeding ewes.

Jim Kenneally looks over a pen of sheep at the Spring Lake Ranch.
 
John O'Connor and his brother Jerry bought the 160-acre Tom Martin Ranch south of Klamath Falls at Spring Lake after John returned in 1918 from the trenches of France during World War I.

 

"Sheep were a good business for a long time," says O'Connor, who turns 79 later this month. "In the early days you couldn't drive across the county without seeing bands of sheep, some in pastures, some being trailed to town from the ranges. Spring and fall were the busiest times for trailing, an early fall shipping fat lambs by rail - later, trucks."

Restaurants in San Francisco, along with Los Angeles and Chicago, were the main buyers - "There were thousands of sheep and they got eaten up."

The O'Connor home at Spring Lake.

The O'Connors were a major player in the sheep industry. At one time the O'Connor Livestock Company had vast holdings in Oregon and California. Oregon Institute of Technology and the Merle West Medical Center were built on former O'Connor grazing lands.

"From May to June you could see lambs playing in the fields along the highway when the sun was out. Sheep were a big industry in those days. Several thousand people depended on sheep for their livelihood, from employment to selling the needs of the sheep industry," laments O'Connor. "Not many of us are alive today to remember."

John D. O'Connor

The O'Connor story began when Jack's father, John D., left County Kerry, Ireland for Lake County in 1911 as a 16-year-old.

Like others, John D. traveled to Lake County to work for an established Irish sheepman, Jackie Flynn. Flynn had come over years earlier and earned his stake before developing a thriving sheep business and recruiting young Irishmen from his homeland.

A team of horses haul a load in winter.

"I think the relatives just kept bringing their relatives," says O'Connor. "The Irish pretty well controlled Lake County."

John D. was drafted into the U.S. Army and sent overseas to fight in the trenches of France during World War I. After 18 months, he returned in 1918. With his brother, Jerry, who moved west from New York, they bought the 160-acre Tom Martin Ranch south of Klamath Falls at Spring Lake.

"This was the seed that later became O'Connor Livestock Company," says Jack.

John D. and Jerry were joined by a third brother, Matt, from Ireland. Jerry was the buyer, John D. the farmer and Matt the sheepman. Jerry died in 1941. Matt retired in 1944 and returned to Ireland.

The brothers had a small dairy and grew grain and spuds but, as Jack explains, "The grain froze, the dairy didn't produce enough and the spuds were not steady, so the sheep won out. Sheep seemed to be what they could do best."

The O'Connors added land and sheep, a cross of Rambiollet and Columbia. During peak periods they employed a 35-man crew. They built Oregon's first pellet mill. In 1941, they bought mill holdings along Lake Ewauna, which they converted into a feed mill for sheep and cattle.

Each winter sheep were loaded onto trains at, variously, Stukel, Merrill and Chiloquin - and on trucks after World War II - and transported to Maxwell, Calif. Each spring sheep grazed in the Lava Beds, and in summer moved to ranges near Chiloquin and Lenz. The family added acreage, eventually owning two home ranches, one at Spring Lake, another near Lower Klamath Lake.

John D. married Violette Matney, who lived on a nearby ranch, in 1920. Jack, who was born June 25, 1925 at the Klamath Valley Hospital, was the youngest of four children.

Jack married Theresa Taucher of Maxwell, Calif. They had five children. Theresa died in 1982 and O'Connor remarried a year later. He and his wife, Muriel, live in Klamath Falls.

He says the sheep's industry demise stemmed from various factors, including passage of the 1934 Taylor Grazing Act, which eliminated "tramp" sheepmen, who didn't own land, and the passage of increasingly stringent predator controls.

The loss of sheep, he believes, is significant.

"The sheep industry has been given a wrong image. It (grazing) groomed the forests so the wildlife could use it and kept the fuels for (forest) fires in check. Kept the brush from getting too big for deer use. Grazing converted a fire hazard into food and fiber," he insists. "Sheep were great weed controllers along ditches, roads and unfarmed areas."

He also believes sheep helped farmers. Instead of having to burn stubble and leftover hay, sheep grazed and cleaned those fields, and provided natural organic fertilizer.

"Animals weren't put on this land to be locked up and looked at. They have a job to do," believes O'Connor, who calls sheep "groomers of the forest."

The O'Connor Livestock Company "dwindled down " its sheep operation, and increased the numbers of cattle. By 1972 they had 2,600 sheep. In 1975, with prices for wool and lamb declining severely, sheep became a memory.

The ranch is now managed by O'Connor's son, Tim, who runs about 800 head of Hereford cross cattle near Lower Klamath Lake.

Phasing out of the sheep business wasn't something he wanted to do, but O'Connor believes it was inevitable. "We all have to change sometime."

"They were stabilizers," O'Connor says of sheep. "You went on the land and make food and fiber out of water. I think they're a sacred animal. One time a cattleman friend of mine was giving me a hard time about sheep. I told him I've never seen a picture of God holding a calf."



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