In 1809, a man named William Jarvis sent a flock of Spanish sheep to America and altered the landscape and the economy of Vermont. The shipment of prized merino sheep eventually turned Vermont’s subsistence farmers into wealthy ranchers, fed the new woolen mills and deforested the landscape.
William Jarvis built a successful trading house dealing in European commodities. He got to know Lisbon, Portugal well and served as Thomas Jefferson’s consul to Portugal from 1802 to 1811. During that time, Jarvis discovered a secret closely guarded by the Spanish: Their merino sheep produced fine, thick wool that was soft, water-resistant and long-fibered. In 1811, Jarvis bought an estate in Weathersfield, Vt., near his relatives in Claremont, N.H. He brought thousands of sheep, along with Spanish shepherds and dogs to tend them. He evolved into a zealot for the merino sheep, giving speeches, lending money to farmers who wanted to raise them and buying an interest in a woolen mill in Quechee, Vt. Merino mania then seized Northern New England, especially Vermont. Textile manufacturers paid farmers $2.00 for a pound of merino wool, while common wool sold for 37.5 cents a pound. Common sheep sold for $2, while Merino rams sold for as much as $1,500 each. Farmers stopped growing wheat and grain and started raising the Spanish sheep. They cut down thousands of acres of trees because the sheep needed the land for grazing.
In 1836, Vermont’s roughly 285,000 residents shared the state with 1.1 million sheep. By 1840, the sheep population would reach 1.7 million, or nearly six sheep per capita. No other state committed itself so strongly to sheep.
The bust came soon after the boom, however, and by 1850 the Vermont wool industry was in decline. Demand for wool blankets and uniforms during the Civil War caused a temporary spike in prices; cotton was scarce and wool was needed for military uniforms. However, competition from Western states and the vast sheep ranches of Australia soon made Vermont’s sheep industry unprofitable.
By the mid 1800s cows would overtake sheep as dairy products became the foundation of Vermont’s agriculture. Today, with milk prices uncertain, and diversification often necessary for the survival of Vermont’s small farms, is it time to turn to sheep again?