Greek Sheepmen

Helen Z. Papanikolas
History Blazer, September 1995

At the beginning of this century, many men and boys from Greece found work in Utah mines and on railroad gangs. They had come from a pastoral people who spent the greater part of the year driving sheep and goats to mountains for summer pasture and to plains for winter protection. They could not have survived in their barren, craggy land without sheep to provide them food and wool for clothing.

It was hard for the immigrants to become used to the lonely tent and railroad-car colonies on the plains of Utah sagebrush and to long shifts working in rooms of coal, their shoes in ice-encrusted water. The young men also missed their native food: cheese made from goat’s milk, yogurt (curdled milk), and lamb, which they could afford only on Christmas and Easter in their native country—if at all.

A few of the workers took advantage of this longing and bought young lambs that they raised and killed before they became yearlings. Along with the lambs they kept goats to provide milk for cheesemaking. Their attention, though, was centered on sheep because goats can survive on sparse, rough fodder and require less care.

To the Greeks sheep are creatures of God: one of the symbols for Jesus is the lamb. The Bible uses the lamb to denote purity: Matthew 25:33 says “And he [Jesus] shall set the sheep [the good] on his right hand . . .” Before killing a lamb, Greeks made the sign of the cross in prayer for a swift, unbotched death.

Many folk customs were brought to Utah. Just as they had in Greece, the men used tufts of clean wool dipped in the film that formed on top of goat cheese to draw out infection. A badly injured person was wrapped in the pelt of a freshly killed sheep. On Easter the traditional roasted lamb was eaten, and the meal was followed by an older, respected man’s “reading” the shoulder blade—examining the lines and pittings on the bone to divine what the coming year would bring.

As more and more Greeks came into Utah to work in the newly opened mines in Carbon County, Greek boardinghouses sprang up in each coal camp and more meat was needed. The men began raising larger herds in enclosures outside of the towns and continued to feed them on hay. This worked well and the meat suppliers became the most prosperous of immigrants until the early 1920s. By that time many Greek workers had begun leaving the mines and railroad gangs and using their savings to go into business. New Greek immigrants did not take their places because the strict immigration laws of 1921 and 1924 almost cut off their entrance into the country.

With the closing of many Greek boardinghouses, the meat suppliers decided to become sheepmen in the real sense: breeding, raising hay for feed, shearing in the spring, and selling their animals in the fall in Denver, Kansas City, and Chicago.

Now the sheepmen returned to the life they knew best from childhood, although their sheep were numbered in the thousands, not in the tens and twenties. They trailed their sheep for summering into the Oquirrh Mountains, the high country around Scofield, Carbon County, and the Uinta Mountains. When these areas became overgrazed, they leased rich land around Craig and Grand Junction, Colorado, but most of them still lived in Utah.

Families spent the three months of summer “at sheep.” Mothers and daughters cooked for crowds of men, canned enough fruits and vegetables to last their families and sheepherders until the following season, and rolled out dough into stacks of thin sheets to be made into cheese pastries whenever needed. Sons cut alfalfa, worked around the summer house, weeded the garden, and took supplies to sheepherders in their camps among the aspen. Older boys took their turn as sheepherders. The very youngest children had the job of bottle-feeding the “bum” lambs (orphaned, rejected, or the weaker of twins).

In September the children returned to town and school and waited impatiently for their fathers’ return from marketing the sheep. Utah sheepmen usually sold their sheep in the Kansas City stockyards. Until the late 1930s owners traveled with their sheep in special cars, which had stoves for cooking. These autumn journeys are well described by Hughie Call in The Golden Fleece, a story about a Montana sheep family.

Children could tell if the price of lambs was high by the gifts their fathers brought them. And if the price was not high, there was always the excitement of having their fathers at home for two months or so. (Sheep on the winter range were left in the care of sheepherders.) The fathers rested and visited coffeehouses where they met friends, discussed the latest news in Greek-language newspapers, and drank Turkish coffee from small white cups. Soon it was time for lambing when the newborn needed every protection from cold winds, and the cycle began again.

The depression of the 1930s, World War II, and the deaths of the first immigrant Greek sheepmen diminished the number of Greek sheep families. There are a few third-generation Greek sheep families, however. Although they have not kept up the lore and customs connected with sheep, for them there is only one way of life—sheep raising.

Source: Helen Z. Papanikolas, “The Greek Sheepmen of Utah,” Beehive History 2 (1976).