Willoughby: A different kind of summer tourist | AspenTimes.com

Willoughby: A different kind of summer tourist

Tim Willoughby
Legends & Legacies
Sheep graze at the upper end of Little Annie Basin in the 1930s.
Willoughby Collection

A 1924 Aspen Times editor’s note referred to a problem due to “summer tourists,” but he was not talking about people — it was sheep. Sheep had been grazing in Ute Cemetery. He went on to say, “Either herders should keep their sheep out of the Ute Cemetery or a fence should be put up.”

Sheep were a common sight in 1920s Aspen. They arrived in early summer and left in late fall. They arrived by train, were unloaded, and then driven through town, with locals watching like it was a parade, and then headed up Aspen Mountain for the high country. My father, as a teen in 1922, worked several days with the drive up Aspen Mountain. On the way up ewe and a lamb got trapped 30 feet down an old mine shaft and he had to pull them out with a rope. As summer went on the sheep were moved higher and higher as the snow melted, eventually occupying the open areas above timberline.

To give you some idea of the numbers, in 1920 from June 24 to July 10, 46 railroad cars of sheep were brought to town on the Rio Grande Railway, and more later. Some came from Grand Junction, others from Utah. From Sept. 24 to Oct. 14, 61 train carloads reversed the process.

Sheep were distributed throughout the area with herders setting up high-country camps. In the 1920s, locations included Hunter Creek, Lost Man, Snowmass, Pearl Pass and Independence. The list also included Ashcroft, West Hunter Creek and West Maroon. In 1925 Aspen’s local Forest Service ranger, Len Shoemaker, estimated there were 15,000 sheep in the local Forest Service areas.

The sheep were not welcomed by everyone. In 1921, 40 armed cattleman near Craig blocked the route to the White River National Forest stopping 6,000 sheep. Wolves and mountain lions, however, welcomed them. A study in 1920 estimated that 3,200 sheep were killed in one year in Colorado and Wyoming.

The grazing business was so important to Colorado that people were warned to be more mindful of preventing forest fires because they spread to the grazing areas eliminating sheep food. Herders paid grazing fees to the Forest Service and each county got a share related to how many sheep were in the county, a significant contribution to the budget.

One of my father’s favorite sheep stories was one year in the late summer when there was an early snowstorm. Sheep had been grazing above timberline on the Richmond Hill ridge. When it first started to snow herders recognized that it could be a bad enough storm to kill many of their sheep, so they began moving them to a lower elevation. The storm intensified. Father was in the Midnight Mine bunkhouse in Queens Gulch when he heard a bah-bahing racket. He went outside and after a quick discussion they decided since it was near sunset and the storm was worsening it would be too difficult and dangerous to herd them on down Queens Gulch, so instead they herded them into the midnight tunnel for the night.

I am not sure when the annual sheep migration stopped, but I remember seeing it well into the late 1960s.

Tim Willoughby’s family story parallels Aspen’s. He began sharing folklore while teaching at Aspen Country Day School and Colorado Mountain College. Now a tourist in his native town, he views it with historical perspective. Reach him at redmtn2@comcast.net.

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