Friday, March 12, 2010

Clermont: Home of the Merino Sheep

As I am designing posters and getting activities for the Sheep & Wool Showcase on April 24th, it occurs to me that some people may not know why Clermont hosts a lot of knitters, sheep, and border collies every spring.

In 1801, Thomas Jefferson sent Chancellor Robert R. Livingston to Paris to negotiate for purchase of the city of New Orleans. Burning for a chance to get back into politics after being sidelined by Washington, the Chancellor eagerly packed up his wife, two daughters and sons-in-law, and enough luggage and supplies to last them for the very long boat ride and six years in Europe.

But politics was not the only the on Bob's mind.:
"The hope of aquiring such useful information in agriculture and the arts as would be useful to my fellow citizens, was not one of my smalledt motive for accepting a foreign mission."
he wrote in 1809. Of course, by this time, he was basking in the self assurance that came from the success and wealth produced by the Fulton/Livingston steamboat, but he was also thinking about the growing success of his agricultural pursuits. He had been one of the few foreigners to get several Merino sheep out of France, and he was now breeding and selling these to Americans with the zeal of a use car salesman.

An Enlightment gentleman, Livingston believed that it was his duty to contribute both politically and scientifically to society (there was no conflict of interests if these pursuits made him rich in the process). After the scandal surrounding the Louisian Purchase, Livingston focused his attention on several scientific projects at Clermont.

Merinos were a closely-guarded commodity in France and their native Spain. They bore a high-volume, high-quality fleece and had a body that made for good eating when they were no longer producing wool. Getting them out of the country took some diplomatic tap dancing, and he hurriedly sent them home to Clermont where he left instructions for his farm manager to propogate the breed. Livingston fully believed that by getting American farmers to switch off their old breeds of sheep and embrace the Merino, he could increase the new county's general wealth.

The thinking went like this: Merino wool makes higher-quality cloth, negating the American dependence on France for luxury goods (several American politicians were worried that France was doing it's best to make America a dependent customer). American farmers who kept Merino flocks would make more money selling this wool, and American consumers would pay less for their nice wool broadcloath.

Of course, with only four breeding stock to start with, the Chancellor's scientific and business acumen had their place to shine (as oposed to his steamboat designs which were failures).
When he arrived home to New York, Livingston found that his farm manager had been selling off 1/2 breed Merinos to the neighbors for cheap. Farmers were concerned that the odd-looking animal would not produce or would not be hardy enough to withstand New York winters so they wouldn't pay luxury prices. "Eh Conrad, that's one foolish looking sheep you bought from Livingston. I bet you two dollars it won't last through January. Bet your kids'll be hungry."

To artificially inflate the market, the Chancellor went around buying back all the Merino stock at unusually high prices. Gossip began. "Livingston must think these sheep are really worth something, eh Conrad?" "Sure thing John, he bought my ram back for the price of three ewes--I wonder if I should have held onto that thing...."

He then began a careful breeding program, breeding his merinos to his American flock to create half-breeds, then back to the Merino flock to create three-quarter breeds, and so on. Once a sheep was 15/16 Merino, he considered it a full breed Merino sheep. At right you can see Clermont, one of the first two full-bred Merino rams to be born at his farm. Ostensibly, this drawing was done by his elder daughter Margaret Maria.

Livingston then began hosting public sheep shearings.

The public were invited to come see for themselves what big soft fleeces these sheep yeilded. Elite friends who could bring some good business his way were invited to stay for dinner, where they got drunk toasting the new breed and singing "Ba ba Black Sheep, Have you any wool?" At right is a print of one of these shearing festivals.

Pretty soon, the sheep caught on. People who had sold their Merinos to Livingston earlier were now making trips back over to Clermont to pay even more money to put them back in their own folds. "Hey Conrad, look at my fancy new Merino half-breeds. Bet you wish you hadn't sold yours last fall!"
As far south as Deleware, special mills were being designed to handle the wool and advertising that they had Livingston Merinos. Another mill in western New York began producing high-quality broadcloath using Merino fleece (check out the guy from Williamsburg at right in his fancy-schmany wool broadcloth suit). Once he'd beat out his less savy competition in Connecticut (who'd gotten some Merinos our just a year or two later), the Merino wool market was his to control.
In 1809, Livingston published "A Treatise on Sheep," which eventually became a classic piece of literature on breeding programs. Way to go Bob!
Did merino sheep change the world? It certainly is a popular wool these days. Check out the tag in some of your softer wool sweaters. There's a good chance it will be made out of Merino wool.
Want to see some handmade wool products? Swing by the Chancellor's Sheep & Wool Showcase this April 24th. There are some amazing artisans!

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