Wyomingites restore sheep wagons
SHERIDAN — Somewhere between the lonely sheep herder and the tourist who books an Airbnb on a whim lies the mystery of the sheep wagon.
For more than a century, these unique wagons have filled the most rural areas of Wyoming, from the unfenced, open range to national forests, cementing their place in the western history. Today, some are restored to their original glory, some are made to be works of art and others are built with a modern user in mind. The story of the sheep wagon begins almost 150 years ago in Rawlins or Douglas — depending on who you ask.
“Sheep wagons were invented in Wyoming in 1884 by a blacksmith that was either in Rawlins or Douglas,” Leslie Hamilton of Hamilton Forge in Dubois said. “I like the guy in Rawlins. His name was James Candlish, and I think that is probably where they came from. They were just a standard wagon but they put a bed across it, and it had a fabricated stove in it so the person wouldn’t freeze to death in the wintertime.”
Sheridan-based Shelley Kinnison said that her late father-in-law Tom Kinnison collected sheep wagons. He’d buy them from rural ranchers as he made the trek from the Capitol to Sheridan during his time in the state Legislature, she said. One he gave her is now a display piece at Born in a Barn. Hers has a copper roof, and she said it’s one of the most photographed pieces on site.
“People love them. They are just very romantic, and I think they are nostalgic for people,” she said. “If you are from this part of the country, you remember them. There’s a huge Basque population here, and they used them. The cowboys used them too.”
Hamilton, “a modern day blacksmith,” spent much of his career as a welder and builds modern-day wagons from the ground up. Decades ago, though, he was just a kid in a sheep wagon.
“I was raised in the Bighorn Basin in the Worland area. I am 68, and when I started working for ranches I was a kid, 12 and 13 years old. They would put you in some random place on a big sheep outfit,” Hamilton recalled.
“You’d show up for work, whether you were irrigating or fixing fence, and you’d be there for two or three weeks at a time. They would have a row of these things, and some were in pretty bad shape. They would say, ‘Pick one, move the pack rats out and climb in.’ And that’s what you would do,” he said. “I fell in love with them.”
Hamilton said he found sheep wagons again after his wife passed away.
“I wanted to build one of these things to keep from going nuts,” he said. His have modern-day features, like a shell made of aircraft-grade aluminum with interior and exterior LED lights, two HDMI ports and a 12-volt battery maintainer. His wagons won the 2015 Wyoming State Fair open division championship and best of show.
Sheep wagons today are often found on guest ranches and on sites like Airbnb. There’s a restored 1920s-era wagon available to rent near Shell, another near the Southfork Valley outside Cody and another in the remote Shirley Basin. Some have metal roofs, others canvas. Hamilton’s aluminum wagons pay tribute to WWII-era construction.
Before the war, sheep wagons were covered by canvas treated with diesel fuel or beeswax for durability, but, when canvas was rationed in WWII, people had to find an alternative. Local newspapers began shifting from hand-set type to aluminum-plate printing, which could only be used a half a dozen times for printing. That led to a surplus of aluminum.
“The newspapers would sell that aluminum for scrap,” he said. “The ranchers would go to Casper or Billings or wherever there was a printing press and buy their aluminum and cover their sheep wagon.”
Though Hamilton and Kinnison both have metal covered sheep wagons, many people still use traditional canvas. In 1977, Celia Bolinger opened B&L Upholstery in Buffalo, and people started asking if she could make the covers.
“My background is in sheep and sheep wagons, so naturally I took it on,” she said. “My grandmother used to cover her own wagons, which I think a lot of them did back a long time ago.”
Bolinger said she used to help cover the wagons once the canvas was prepared, but she leaves that task to younger folks these days. A lot of the wagon covers she makes end up on working land, although many ranchers don’t keep sheep herders out the way they used to.
“They had all the comforts you might need out in the hills,” she said. “But one thing that I always think about is that it had to be the loneliest job in the world.”
Bolinger’s family is Basque, an indigenous ethno-linguistic group with roots in Basque Country adjacent to Spain and France. Many of her ancestors immigrated to the United States and found work in Wyoming as sheep herders.
“Some Basque outfits might have had three or four herders they kept out with their sheep. They brought young guys from Spain and France, and they didn’t know any English. They were in a strange country and didn’t know anyone other than who brought them here,” Bolinger said. “They would put them in the sheep wagon and every 10 days or so, the camp tender would take supplies and check on them.
“I had an uncle that came over as a young man who went down to the Powder River. They put him in a wagon with some sheep, I don’t even remember who he worked for,” she said. “He told me that was the loneliest time of his life.”
Richard Frankovic, who serves on the board of directors for the Big Horn Basque Club, said his great grandfather and grandfather built sheep wagons in Johnson County and “probably a few in Sheridan, too.”
“They are so easy to live in. Everything is so handy in them,” he said. “They are unique, too. They were the first Airstreams. There’s something about the aura in there.”
Frankovic and Mick Camino, who also serve on the Big Horn Basque Club board, both worry that, despite the draw of the wagon itself, their history is being lost.
“All the older people are gone, and our charge is to get the young ones involved. There are really only a few 100% Basque people left in Johnson County,” Frankovic said.
Camino said there are challenges to the traditional Basque way of life.
“The sheepherders, we didn’t have a level playing field against our foreign competitor, and no one represented us,” Camino said. “Consequently, it’s now essentially extinct. There are a few people that still raise sheep but only because they had mineral money or sold some of their property.”
There’s an official Basque government over the Basque Autonomous Community of Spain, and it promotes the heritage, language and culture of its people, and the Big Horn Basque Club is a part of a larger North American Basque Organization.
“But participation is low. The Buffalo club started around 1982, and there was a lot more interest back then,” Camino said. “As time goes by, we’re having a hard time finding anyone interested in passing on the Basque heritage.”
The history, though, is ingrained in the sheep wagon itself. Camino remembers spending 10 or 11 days on the trail as a kid, sleeping in a wagon in a different spot each night. Even Hamilton’s wagons, with a few modern comforts, are simple.
And that’s the draw.
“It is the simplicity of them. It is like a ship’s cabin. There’s a place for everything, and no place for things you don’t need,” Hamilton said. “They’re the ultimate minimalist experience.”
Today, the sheep wagon is a respite from a busy world.
“You go out in the country or up in the mountains and you park one of these, and it’s like going back in time,” Frankovic said. “You turn off your damn cellphone and you park it somewhere where you can’t be reached, and it’s a hell of a way to spend a weekend.”