The Farmscape Ecology Program * KYPP Nugget 5: May 14, 2010

KYPP Nugget: Sheep & Wool

Next Week in The Columbia Paper: "Columbia County's Special Places"
How a young botanist began to document locally important natural areas in the 1930s and how we can now build on his work. In FEP's next Perspectives on Place column in The Columbia Paper, May 20, 2010. 

Sheep & Wool: Background Exploration

Columbia County was an important early center of sheep husbandry and the wool industry in the country -- indeed, for much of the 19th century, the two went hand in hand.  Yet even before the sheep and wool boom, sheep and wool were very important locally, enabling families to provide clothing for themselves.

"The Homespun Age"

Before the advent of the textile industry, most local farm families kept small flocks of sheep that provided the wool for spinning and weaving cloth to make their own "homespun" clothing.  Women were primarily responsible for the production of clothing, which involved many steps from tending the sheep to carding, spinning, weaving, and fulling the wool.  This labor was exchanged and shared by women in intricate social webs.  In 1810, just at the cusp of textile industrialization, Columbia County homes produced 254,750 yards of cloth - the second most of any county in the state. 

Part and parcel to this production was the development of early mechanical processes that aided in home cloth making.  In 1810, the County also had 23 carding machines where women would send their wool to be prepared for spinning, and 22 fulling mills where woven cloth could be sent for finishing.  Families and small manufacturers could save time, increase their yield, and improve the quality of the cloth by making use of these early wool processing machines. 

A Local Diary: "Wool off my own sheep"

Claverack physician Alexander Coventry’s diary gives a small glimpse of this world.  He has several passages that mention different aspects of the clothes-making process, such as the following excerpts:

“1789, Nov 24 – Went to Williamson’s in P.M. and got my measure for short coat and trousers, having got that piece from the fulling mill which was sent there some time ago.  There are now about 6 yards made from wool off my own sheep.”

“1791, August 3 – Had a carding bee in the P.M.  Had twelve guests in the P.M. and Mr. Dowling who has a pair of large cards, one of which [he] placed in a kind of frame or bench and the other he uses with both hands.  Had a dance at night.”

Merinos, Robert Livingston, and the sheep and wool boom
Merino Sheep

A sketch of 'Clermont,' one of Livingston's Merino sheep, 1810

At the heart of the sheep boom that began in the early 19th century was the Merino - a Spanish breed of sheep that produced a soft, fine wool far superior to the wool being produced from "common" unimproved sheep (Bruegel 2002).  However, Merino sheep were a tightly guarded treasure in Spain and France (at one time the penalty for exporting Merino sheep from Spain was death).  It was therefore not until the beginning of the 1800s that Merino sheep were successfully introduced into the United States.  Leading the way was local statesman Robert Livingston.  In 1802, while serving as Minister to France, Livingston was able to obtain 2 prized pairs of Merino sheep and ship them back to his Clermont estate.  He continued to enthusiastically import, breed, and promote the Merino sheep, in 1809 writing his famous Essay on Sheep where he extolled the virtues and profit-potential of the Merino.  His efforts were well-rewarded.  A speculative “Merino craze” quickly swept the country, and was further fueled by embargos surrounding the War of 1812, which cut off British woolen imports.  Suddenly Merino rams were being sold for hundreds of dollars, some especially prized ones for $1000 each. 

Boom and Bust

A bust soon followed this early boom; indeed, these up and down fluctuations marked the whole period of the sheep boom through the 1860s.  As Horatio Spafford wrote in the Columbia County section of the 1824 Gazetteer of the State of New York:

“Unfortunately for themselves and the country, like those in every other part of the State, the farmers have overvalued, and undervalued, in quick succession, the Merino Sheep, the subject of so much speculation, profit, loss, and two-fold regrets."

The rise and fall in the number of sheep and the amount of wool production continued to fluctuate in response to external circumstances like wars and protective tariffs on wool products that came and went.  The graph to the right of the number of sheep in Columbia County demonstrates this fluctuation.  Note the effect of the Civil War, which was a huge boon for local wool manufacturing, as the North found itself suddenly cut off from its supply of cotton from the South and in need of large numbers of woolen uniforms, blankets and other supplies for the Union Army. 

Wool Manufacturing in Columbia County

Just as Columbia County was a focal point for Merino sheep production, it was the epicenter for the wool manufacturing industry.  This was due not only to the ready supply of local Merino wool, but also the County’s bountiful waterpower and proximity to key innovations in wool manufacturing.  One of the most important innovations was the introduction of the carding machines manufactured by Arthur Schofield.  By 1802, Schofield had set up shop in neighboring Pittsfield, Massachusetts, and was soon selling carding machines to the surrounding area as can be seen in the following advertisement in The Pittsfield Sun.  It is not surprising, then, that in 1810 Columbia County had 23 carding machines, one of the densest concentrations in the state. 

Carding Machine Advertisement

The Case of Philmont

Philmont has a particularly long, vibrant history of textile manufacturing, beginning with the construction of a fulling mill in 1796.  In 1845, George Philip harnessed the town’s tremendous waterpower by conducting a dam and excavating a power canal with five different mill privileges, and wool factories flourished alongside the peak of the “sheep boom.”  In 1852, the New York and Harlem Rail Road opened up a station in Philmont that further spurred its industrial development.  In the 1860s wool factories gave way to knitting mills, as knitting machinery improved and the Civil War created new demand.  This spurred spin-off industries, such as a knitting needle factory and a wool machinery factory.  The textile industry remained an important part of Philmont’s economy well into the 20th century.  The Summit Knitting Mill is a good example of the long, changing history of textile factories in Philmont.  It was originally the site of a fulling mill in the late 18th century, then became a satinet factory in the 1820s, added carpet making in the 1830s, and was converted in the 1860s to a knit hosiery factory to supply the Union Army during the Civil War.  It continued successfully in the manufacturing of knit hosiery, employing well over 100 people, until declaring bankruptcy in the early 20th century, and ultimately being incorporated into the High Rock Knitting Company as a storehouse.  Today, the Summit Knitting Mill building on Summit Street in Philmont is one of the best-preserved local remnants of textile manufacturing.  You can find detailed descriptions of it and eight other remaining textile structures in Philmont in Peter Stott’s recent book Looking for Work: Industrial Archeology in Columbia County, New York.


Bruegel, Martin. 2002 Farm, Shop, Landing

Stott, Peter. 2007 Looking for Work: Industrial Archeology in Columbia County, New York. 

4/15 column: "A Window into Sheep"

by Anna Duhon

As spring takes hold, I find myself again and again surprised.  One can’t help stumbling upon new discoveries amidst so much seasonal change.  Our eyes, accustomed to seeing bare trees day in and day out, suddenly notice a cacophony of white blossoms, or a shimmering cloud of pale green new leaves on the hillside.

By startling our senses, the jolt of spring is an invitation to see the familiar world differently.  I am reminded of the famous quote by Marcel Proust, “the real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes but in having new eyes.”  Or, one might say, in opening new windows.

A few weeks ago, for example, I had the great privilege to crack open a window into the amphibian world, as I stood in witness of their annual migration – the moment each year when, on the first rainy evenings after a warming spell, salamanders, wood frogs and the like make their way from their forest haunts to woodland pools to breed.  It is easy to miss this momentous evening in the amphibian calendar and to see one early spring night as just like the rest.  (I am lucky to work with field biologists who keep me apprised).

This week, I’ve been looking out the window at sheep.  Not literally, but in preparation for the upcoming Fiber Arts Day we’ll be participating in at the Philmont Library, I’ve had the chance to follow the woolly story of sheep and textiles in Columbia County down the meandering paths of statistics, diaries and treatises.  The result has me squinting at the landscape, trying to imagine Columbia County during what has been descriptively called the “sheep boom.”

As this term might suggest, Columbia County was once sheep country.  Literally.  In 1845, at the peak of the sheep boom, sheep outnumbered people in the County four to one.  In the eastern hill towns where sheep were particularly concentrated (and people were not), this dominance of sheep was even more pronounced.  Here’s an interesting outdoors exercise I’ve been engaging in lately: imagine turning 360 degrees around and seeing open land in all directions dotted with flocks of sheep.

The harder task, perhaps, is to imagine seeing this landscape and the sheep upon it as our predecessors did.  Though we can never do so fully, through the historical sources that do exist one begins to appreciate how interwoven sheep were into the landscape, industry, and daily life of Columbia County.

In the age of homespun (before the boom), sheep and wool were largely the women’s domain, and women engaged in complex networks of exchange to accomplish all the many steps of processing wool (carding, spinning, weaving, fulling) that might clothe their families. 

We are lucky to have the descriptions of Claverack resident Alexander Coventry, whose 1786 diary entry opens a window on such exchanges and their role in strengthening the social fabric:  “Marietta went off with the young ladies to a frolic, or spinning bee.  These are so-called, because each young lady that attends, had had a pound of wool sent her that she must spin herself, by a certain day, and she must return the [yarn] to the owner; all the ladies meeting at the house, and having their dinner and supper there, helping the lady of the house in sewing perhaps, and after tea, have a dance.”

For most of the period of the sheep boom, however, sheep meant money.  Thanks in large part to Clermont resident Robert Livingston, the fine-wooled Merino breed of sheep was introduced into the country at the beginning of the 19th century, and kicked off a period of wild speculation and high quality domestic wool production.  By 1810, Livingston had sold four of his full-bred Merino ram lambs for $1000 each, and was selling unwashed wool for $2 a pound.  While this level of speculation did not last, a generally fortuitous mix of circumstances, tariffs on wool imports, and state incentive programs often kept the climate for woolgrowers favorable until the mid-19th century (though there were some notable ups and downs).

With this in mind, it is easy to understand how sheep helped push land clearing up to the eastern hilltops, leading to the historic high point in the County’s open land: around 75% clear. 

As might be expected, sheep and wool-based manufacturing went hand in hand.  Just as Columbia County was at the heart of the Merino sheep craze, it was an early leader in woolen manufacturing.  In the 1825 census, Columbia County had 19 woolen factories, far outstripping every other county in the state except for neighboring Dutchess County.  During this same time, it produced nearly three times as many yards of “fulled” (finished) woolen cloth than any other county in the state.  In 1834 there were only 18 or so wool carpet factories in the entire United States, and three of them were in Columbia County.

Taking all of this into account, I’ve been looking at Columbia County with new eyes.  The remnants of wool factories and sheep-cleared land no longer look quite so common.  Instead of being just another landscape with an agricultural and industrial past, I’ve come to see our particular part of the Hudson Valley and Berkshire Hills as the cradle of the nation’s sheep husbandry and wool industry.  One more window from which to see our landscape.

The Number of Sheep in Columbia County
Graph of sheep in Columbia County
This graph depicts the fluctuating number of sheep in Columbia County from the early 19th century to the present.

Summit Knitting Mill
In this 1870s view of the Summit Knitting Mill in Philmont, one can see the extent of open land and cleared hilltops that the "sheep boom" helped create.

Wool Factories in New York State
This map of New York state is shaded to depict the number of wool factories in each county in 1825 - the darker the shading, the higher the number of factories.  On the right side of the map one can see that the highest concentration of wool factories was in Columbia and Dutchess Counties: each had 19 at that time, far more than any other county in the state. 

High Rock Advertisement
An advertisement from the High Rock Knitting Company.