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Reclaiming Old-Style Merinos

A New Wrinkle at Firestone Farm Living History Museum

By Alan Harman

Sheep breeders at the Firestone Farm in Michigan are seeing their future by looking into the past.

What they want to do is return their small flock of Merino sheep back more than a century to the way they were when the breed ruled American sheep farms with their tightly wrinkled wool.

The wrinkled sheep provided wool from the equivalent of the body surface of two or three modern sheep—40 pounds from a ram and some 30 pounds from a ewe.

That’s the way the sheep were when Benjamin and Catherine Firestone raised their three children on their farm near Columbiana, Ohio, including a son, tire maker Harvey Firestone.

Benjamin Firestone made his money raising the sheep for their wool—not their meat.

The two-story brick farmhouse and large bank barn were built around 1828, and in

The Ohio Firestone Farm Buildings were moved to Dearborn, Michigan in 1984,
The Ohio Firestone Farm Buildings were moved to Dearborn, Michigan in 1984, “lock, stock and two smoking chimneys.” (Photo by Barbara McClellan).

1882 the Firestones added Victorian trim to the outside of the farmhouse.

That’s where it stayed until 1984 when it was moved “lock, stock and two smoking chimneys” from its original location to the largest outdoor museum in the United States in Dearborn, Michigan.

The Firestone family donated the farmhouse and the barn to Greenfield Village, a living museum founded by carmaker Henry Ford in 1933 and featuring almost 100 historical buildings moved from their original locations.

Greenfield Village has 240 acres of land of which only 90 acres are used for the attraction, the rest being forest, river and pasture.

A white-spired church, town hall, inn, school, courthouse, general store, and other buildings are grouped about a typical old-time village green.

There are also mills and craft shops that illustrate early methods of production. The village has a blacksmith and cobbler’s shop.

The homes and buildings include the Wright brothers’ bicycle shop and home

“B-type” Merino at Firestone Farm
(Greenfield Village Photo)

from Dayton, Ohio, Thomas Edison’s Menlo Park laboratory from New Jersey and Henry Ford’s Bagley Avenue workshop where he built his first vehicle, the Quadricycle.

Ford’s successors decided to add the farm to the collection, including eight acres of fields, fenced and farmed in the same way they would have been when Benjamin Firestone ran the property.

Greenfield Village’s intent is to show how Americans lived and worked since
the founding of the country. It includes buildings from the 17th Century to the present, many of them staffed by costumed interpreters who conduct period tasks including farming, sewing and cooking.

Setting Up The “Merino Project”

Jim Johnson, manager of creative programs for The Henry Ford Museum, says planning for the Merino project began in the winter of 1984—even before the Firestone Farm opened to the public in the spring of 1985.

Consultants were found and a search began for older style stock.

A third of Firestone's Merinos are now wrinkly.<br> (Photo by Alan Harman)
A third of Firestone’s Merinos are now wrinkly.
(Photo by Alan Harman)

“We collected sheep from six different flocks 20 years ago,” Johnson says, “It’s like Jurassic Park. What we are looking for exists in chromosomes. Wrinkly sheep still pop up. We are always looking for a wrinkly rams. We want to find these older sheep and breed them back. They are smaller than the modern Merinos.

“We actually have already achieved good success,” Johnson says. “The question is about maintaining it.”

The breeding program has been slowed by the rotation of rams to avoid inbreeding the flock.

Farm manager Jim Adamik says the aim is to change the ram every two or three years or bring in a second ram to avoid inbreeding.

“Four or five years is tops for any one ram,” he says. “Finding a ram with wrinkles is a challenge. They are sometimes hard to come by.”

Adamik, who has been at Greenfield Village for 2-1/2 years, has a background working with living history museums after growing up with beef cattle in Ohio.

An example of how the Firestone Farm Merinos would have looked in the 1880s. (Greenfield Village photo).
An example of how the Firestone Farm Merinos would have looked in the 1880s.
(Greenfield Village photo).

He says getting the Merinos back to where they were in the 1880s is a challenge.

“We can get closer but it will take longer than people think,” he says. “It’s going to be a long up hill battle. We get rams where we can.”

The first large-scale importation of Spanish Merinos into the U.S. took place just prior to 1810. By the late 1840s and early 1850s, Adamik says the sheep were bred to increase wrinkles, thus increasing skin surface and fleece weights.

This practice continued, peaking with the price of wool in the late 1880s.

“Then they didn’t breed for it,” Adamik says.

In those days the Merino industry in the U.S. was huge, especially in New England and the Midwest. This breed was grown mainly for wool, not meat. Then in the early 1890s there was a crash in wool prices and the market never recovered.

As a result, vast numbers of Merinos were exported to Australia.

The Australian sheep industry went on to dominate the world, but the sheep never regained their lofty status in American farming.

Today there are about eight Merino breeders in Michigan but their sheep don’t have the wrinkles.

Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine primarily are where the really wrinkly sheep are still occasionally found.

“They are difficult to find,” Adamik says. “But we are prepared to go the extra mile for the right ram.”

Well-wrinkled Merinos have a woolen coat that looks vaguely like the surface of the brain.

A third of the Firestone flock is fairly wrinkled thanks to Morehouse Farm, run by Albrecht and Margaret Pickler in Red Hook, New York, who have imported genetics and rams from Australia.

Firestone Farm was able to get access to one of the first-generation Morehouse rams and immediately saw an increase in wrinkling.

Morehouse Farm, located in the Hudson River Valley, began in 1983 with the purchase of the champion Merino sheep flock at the National Merino Show in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

The Picklers had a plan to grow the finest wool in the U.S. and to re-introduce Merino sheep to New England. Once a woolgrower’s pride and joy, Merino sheep had all but disappeared from New England farms. With the rising popularity of synthetic fibers in the 40s and 50s and sinking wool prices, the fine-wooled sheep had lost favor with farmers.

The early 80s brought renewed interest in all things natural, including natural fibers for clothing. Fine Merino wool became the industry standard for luxuriously soft wool.

The Picklers imported the first two superfine Merino rams from Australia in 1987. Now they are delivering rams all over the country and Merino sheep are once again a familiar sight at New England country fairs and shows.

The Firestone Farm has had as many as 50 sheep but then lost some pastoral areas to construction. It now has 15 ewes, nine wethers and Jeremiah the ram.

There were no lambs at Firestone Farm last spring.

Firestone's new young (wrinkly) ram
Firestone’s new young (wrinkly) ram “Jeremiah.”
(Photo by Barbara McClelland)

Jeremiah was aged only about six months last breeding season and he turned out to be “an enthusiastic amateur firing blanks.”

“It was a calculated risk,” Adamik says. “We want to use him. Michigan Extension Service is coming out soon to check his breeding soundness.”

Johnson sees the Firestone Merino program as a never-ending project to take the visual look back to its origins.

“Now the farm has a few A-type (whole body wrinkled) and B-type (wrinkled from shoulder forward) sheep and a few smooth ones,” he says.

The farm is open to the public mid-April through December and visitors can see the entire process, from breeding and lambing to shearing and selling the wool in the gift shop.

Each spring, usually in mid-April, visitors can stop by the yard to see the sheep being hand-sheared.

It’s a laborious job that takes—2-1/2, to 3, or even 4, hours for a well-wrinkled ram.

This is one of the reasons the wrinkly sheep genetics were abandoned by farmers—shearing is time consuming.

Firestone’s raw wool has to be sent to Zeilinger Wool, Co., Frankenmuth, Michigan, to be carded and made into yarn.

“The wool is so fine it takes a special skill,” says Keith Sparks, who for the last four years has had a summer job as a guide and farmhand dressed in 1880s period clothes at Firestone Farm.

The two-ply worsted weight, itch-free wool is sold at Greenfield Village’s lucrative gift shop where it is priced at $16 for about 250 yards and always quickly sells out.

The farm is operated purely as a demonstration farm, and the wool is the only product sold.

Modern Practices

One thing that is strictly 21st century is animal welfare with veterinarians called in whenever need. The Merinos are mulesed to protect from fly infestation.

Sparks says it is not surprising that wrinkly sheep were lost to the industry -—one only has to look at today’s poor price of wool.

“In 1885 they got 70 cents a pound for wool, [worth $15.95 in today’s money—Ed.]” he says. “Now they get only 60 to 70 cents a pound.”

The original Firestone Farm would have had 140 to 150 sheep on 120 acres but the living museum replica farm is just about six acres.

“We aim to be historically accurate as possible but because of the size of the available pasture space, the number of sheep kept is limited,” Sparks says.

The flock spends three or four days a week out in the fields, rotating pasture to keep vegetation down.

Keith Sparks says it takes special skill to process this ultra-fine wool into yarn. (Photo by Alan Harman)
Keith Sparks says it takes special skill to process this ultra-fine wool into yarn. (Photo by Alan Harman)

The sheep are wintered in the unheated barn, but they have that good coat of wool for the cold Michigan months.

When the ewes are lambing, Sparks comes in at night.

The small flock has a 30% twin rate, and on occasions Sparks has become a substitute mother when ewes have rejected the lambs, taking them home and bottle-feeding them.

Johnson says there is nothing unusual about the farm’s lambing procedures as compared to any modern small flock.

“No one lives at the site but a regular schedule involving several trained members of the staff do perform evening lamb checks,” he says.

Usually the lambs are separated from their mothers at about two months.

“It’s a very noisy time,” Sparks says.

Non-producing ewes are sold and also smooth lambs are sold to breeders and 4-H youngsters.

The farm has a high percentage of wethers to fit in with the management style of the 1880s.

“In modern farming wethers are not kept, but back then they were, because the farm centered on wool production,” Sparks says. “Wethers give more wool than ewes. Wool was the Firestone’s cash crop.”

The Firestone flock is one small step back from a world where a recent UN Food and Agriculture Organization says, at least one livestock breed a month has become extinct over the past seven years, which means its genetic characteristics have been lost forever.

Around 20% of the world’s breeds of cattle, goats, pigs, horses and poultry now are at risk of extinction, says the report, the first global assessment of livestock biodiversity.

At the Firestone Farm at least, one breed is being helped back to its origins.

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