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Southwest Range and Sheep Breeding Lab

By Aleta J. Lawrence

The area surrounding Bear Spring that includes the Sheep Lab Historic District became a major area for Navajo settlement in the eighteenth century. The spring was one of a few dependable water sources in the region. Historical records date use of the Bear Spring area by the Navajo from at least as early as 1786, and possibly as early as 1700. Bear Spring was sacred to the Navajo, and was called “Shashbitoo” (or “Shush be toh”) because Navajo war parties visiting the spring often saw a bear there. There is evidence of Navajo raids on Zuni farmsteads in the area around the spring. In the late eighteenth century Navajo groups moved south from Dinetah in northern New Mexico as a response to a drought in 1748, Ute raids in the 1750s, and the adoption of a herding economy. In 1786 the Navajo were grouped into five divisions, one of which has been identified as Ojo del Oso, or “Bear Spring" (Popelish 1994b:8-9).

During the early nineteenth century the Bear Spring area became the site of conflicts between the Navajo and the Utes, Spanish, and U.S. military. The spring also served as a site for peace negotiations. Conflicts and negotiations at Bear Spring are specifically mentioned in the historic record during 1821, 1836-37, 1846, 1851, 1853, 1855, 1858, and 1861. In the 1850s the Rio Puerco Valley began to be used as a major transportation route by the U.S. military as it facilitated the U.S. expansion into the west. Bear Spring became a stopover point for troops between Fort Defiance and the Rio Grande Valley (Popelish 1994b:9).

Actual U. S. military occupation of Bear Spring began in 1860 with the establishment of Fort Fauntleroy. In 1861 it is reported that about 500 Navajos settled in the immediate area of Fort Fauntleroy drawing rations after a series of treaty negotiations. The “Fort Fauntleroy Massacre” of 12 Navajo, including women and children, occurred at the fort on a ration day. Apparently 50 Navajo families continued to live in the area after the tragedy. In 1861 the name of the fort was changed to Fort Lyon, as Colonel Fauntleroy had resigned his commission to join the Confederate Army. Fort Lyon was abandoned in late 1861 when the garrison transferred to Fort Craig in the Rio Grande Valley in response to Confederate Army attacks on the New Mexico Territory. By 1864 the U. S. military had forcibly removed the Navajo from their territory throughout Arizona and New Mexico and incarcerated them in Fort Sumner in eastern New Mexico (Popelish 1994b:9).

In 1868 the fort, renamed Fort Wingate, was reestablished to help with the resettlement of the Navajo from Fort Sumner (Daniel 1997:206, 217). The first fort by that name had been established on October 22, 1862, near the present day town of San Rafael, south of Grants. The old Fort Wingate was abandoned shortly after the Navajos' removal to Fort Sumner. Soon after, Fort Lyon reopened as the "new" Fort Wingate, (Perlman 1997:12). In 1868, Navajo resettlement operations shifted to Fort Defiance further west, and (the new) Fort Wingate became a base of operations for the military campaign against the southern Apaches. Navajos who settled in the area were employed as scouts and laborers at the fort (Daniel 1997: 206, 217). Navajo settlement sites dating from the first half of the nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century have been located in the immediate area of the Sheep Lab Historic District (Copeland, 1988b:9-15, 20-22, 25; Popelish 1994b:13-15). Military occupation of Fort Wingate continued until 1918. Since World War I Fort Wingate has served for munitions storage by the U.S. Army and as the location of elementary and secondary schools.

Chronological History of the Southwestern Range and Sheep Breeding Laboratory

The Southwestern Range and Sheep Breeding Laboratory was a joint venture between the Bureau of Animal Husbandry (BUAH) and the Soil Conservation Service (SCS) of the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), and the Bureau of Indian Affairs (BIA) of the Department of Interior. During the New Deal, Bureau of Indian Affairs Commissioner John Collier instituted an administrative policy of self-determination and preservation of Navajo culture that resulted in the development of day schools, land reclamation, and political institutions. In the Sheep Lab program, Collier and Department of Agriculture Secretary Henry A. Wallace specifically sought to improve Navajo rug and blanket weaving and address the problems of overgrazing of Navajo land (Philp 1977:123). The Navajo market economy that had developed since the early 1900s in Arizona and New Mexico was dependent on wool, lambs, and rugs.

With the Depression, wool and lamb prices dropped. Unsold livestock was retained in the Navajo herds and contributed to overgrazing. In the severe winter of 1931-1932, much of the Navajo livestock starved. Moreover, a 1934 study conducted by Robert Youngblood, the principal agricultural economist in the USDA’s Office of Experimental Stations, found that the wool of the Navajo sheep had lost favorable qualities for weaving and, consequently, the existence of the Navajo rug weaving industry was threatened. Increased crossing of the Navajo churro sheep with other breeds – begun in the late 1800s -- had produced a short staple wool that was too kinky and oily to wash, card, and spin by the hand methods used by Navajo weavers. The short staple wool also produced a bulky, uneven rug compared to those made from the long staple wool of the churro sheep (Parman 1976:22-24, 127).

In 1935, Commissioner Collier signed a cooperative agreement with the Bureau of Animal Husbandry and the Soil Conservation Service for the establishment of the Southwestern Range and Sheep Breeding Laboratory. The Bureau of Indian Affairs provided $75,000 for the facility, and the Bureau of Animal Husbandry provided the staff for its operation (Parman 1976: 128). Though no direct documentation for the Sheep Lab has been found, it appears that the building funds, like funds for other Navajo New Deal building projects sponsored by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, were awarded to the agency from the Public Works Administration (Threinen 1981:63).

The design of the Sheep Lab facilities reflects Collier's intention to utilize Indian architectural traditions within the Navajo New Deal programs. According to Collier, Indian Service architecture predating 1930 was “a conglomeration of nondescript masses of wood, brick, stone, or other building materials, totally devoid of architectural feeling” (Hyer 1995:189-196). Collier’s goals for the design of Navajo New Deal facilities were (1) to adopt elements of native architectural design, (2) to integrate the design with the surrounding landscape, (3) to use local building materials, (4) to maintain simplicity, and (5) to employ local Indians (Threinen 1981:66).

Collier selected the architectural firm of Mayers, Murray, and Phillip to design the Sheep Lab. Although Threinen reports that the reasons for the choice of this particular firm are not known (1981:66), some assumptions may be made in this regard. First, the firm was the successor to Bertram Goodhue, the architect who designed the town of Tyrone, New Mexico. In that endeavor, Goodhue employed the Mission Revival style (aka Spanish Colonial Revival style), which is similar in appearance to the Pueblo Revival style (Iowa 1985:82-86; Blumenson 1981:8-9.) Second, Mayers, Murray, and Phillip had just been chosen to design 46 day schools on the Navajo Reservation, as well as the new tribal government buildings in Window Rock. That project overlapped chronologically with the Sheep Lab enterprise and employed much the same architectural style and manners of construction (Threinen 1981:63 et seq.).

The architectural design developed by Mayers, Murray, and Phillip for the day school, Window Rock and Sheep Lab projects represented an application of the National Park Service (NPS) Rustic aesthetic in an effort to conform to regional stylistic and cultural norms. Although some hogan-like structures were built for the day school project, the majority of the buildings were constructed in a plasterless variant of the Pueblo Revival style, with parapeted flat roofs, projecting log beams (vigas), wood drainage spouts (canales), and exposed wood lintels over the windows (Threinen 1981:63-66). The origin and evolution of this stylistic variant is germane to the history and significance of the Historic District and is addressed in the discussion of Criterion A, below. All of the contributing buildings and structures at the Sheep Lab conform to this style. Their walls are exposed dressed sandstone blocks, obtained from two local quarry sites, Forest Service sites AR-03-03-02-2012 and AR-03-03-02-2031 (Popelish 1994c:6 and fig.4; Copeland 1988b:17).

The similarity in materials and design between the New Deal day schools and tribal administrative buildings designed by Mayers, Murray, and Phillip on the Navajo reservation and the Sheep Lab suggests that the latter was built in a manner similar to that of the first two undertakings. It is likely, then, that the Sheep Lab was built by crews of unskilled Navajo laborers headed by a skilled, Anglo-American foreman assisted by several interpreters. Plumbers and electricians were brought in when needed (Threinen 1981:66-67). Employment of local Native labor is indicated by a report of one Charlie Marinito of Iynabito, who helped to "put up some of rock buildings at the lab" (Popelish 1992b).

The guiding purpose of the Sheep Lab research program was the organized study of wool technology and sheep breeding. Its four main goals were: (1) the determination of the type or types of sheep that were best adapted to the environment of the Navajo Indian Reservation and the needs of its people; (2) the development of this type or types of sheep; (3) the pursuit of range improvement and flock management experiments to determine management practices for the maximum return on the sheep; and (4) the education of Navajo sheep producers on better range and flock management and breeding programs and procedures (Sidwell et al. 1970:1). Research and activities at the Lab concentrated on the first two goals prior to 1942. Once the breeding population was established, later Laboratory work centered upon the realization of the latter two goals. To this end, the Lab held annual field days in which Navajo herders participated. Some of these fetes included speakers of political importance.

The first director of the fledgling Sheep Lab was James M. Cooper. He served in that capacity from 1935 to 1942. It was under his guidance that the foundation flock of churro breeding sheep was established and that the initial outcrossing experiments with other sheep breeds were conducted. Cooper's first challenge was to locate and acquire enough unmixed Navajo churro breeding stock for the Lab’s breeding experiments. This proved to be difficult. By the 1930’s, most of the tribe’s sheep had been extensively and indiscriminately interbred with the commercial, merino-type breeds that produced wool unsuited to hand-weaving. Nevertheless, Cooper's staff succeeded in locating pockets of pure churro sheep in isolated areas of the Navajo reservation, such as Navajo Mountain and Black Mesa. In a letter to Cooper dated October 9, 1935, Carl Beck, "Stockman in Charge," reported: "To date we have 714 head of native Navajo ewes and 35 rams for the laboratory" (Dodge papers: Folder FY 1936). By 1936, a foundation herd of some 800 ewes and 20 rams had been purchased (McNeal 1992).

Descendants of the original sheep introduced into the Southwest by the Spanish conquistadors and colonists, the churro had become well adapted to the rigorous conditions of the region during its 400-year sojourn there. Although possessed of an undesirable hairy outercoat, its long-stapled, low-grease wool was excellent for working on the handloom. Researchers at the Sheep Lab wanted to develop a strain of sheep that retained the wool’s desirable characteristics, plus the churro’s hardiness and good mothering traits that minimized lamb loss (see Photo 11). At the same time they wanted to overcome the breed’s problems of late maturity, low lamb weight at weaning, and the unstable fleece color and fiber content (Sidwell et al. 1970:6).

Winter of 1936 saw the initiation of two breeding programs at the Lab. The first was designed to maintain an improved but pure churro breed of sheep. Toward this end, animal breeders effected . . . repeated “in-line” or reciprocal matings of the native stock. The offspring of each new generation after 1936 were carefully examined for [desirable] traits . . . and animals bearing [those traits] . . . were then retained for subsequent breeding. (McNeal 1992.)

The second breeding program entailed the breeding of churro ewes to rams of the Corriedale and Romney breeds. These breeds were chosen for outcrossing because they produced coarse, long-stapled wool that was “fairly suitable” for hand-weaving. They also possessed desirable traits, i.e., larger body weight and early maturation, that the churro lacked. The next season’s breeding crossed desirable churro/Corriedale offspring with churro/Romney offspring, resulting in a sheep that was one-half churro, one-quarter Corriedale, and one-quarter Romney. This new strain was reciprocally bred until 1942, in order to “strengthen and ‘fix’ desirable traits” (McNeal 1992). A document entitled "Tentative Breeding Plan for 1940-41" is revealing of the goals of the breeding program of that time:

The project at this station [the Sheep Lab] lays more stress on the wool phase of the breeding program than it does on the mutton phase. It is felt, therefore, that more attention should be paid to the improvement of the fleece type of the animals in the breeding flock. All possible improvement will be made in conformation, but not at the expense of wool. (Dodge papers: Folder FY 1941).

The new strain of crossbred churro sheep produced fleeces with a uniform texture and color valuable for the commercial market. Breeding was also successful in removing the hair-like outercoat from the Navajo stock. Other problems had yet to be overcome. The wool was too fine for home rug weaving; fleece weight had not increased; and the weight of lambs at weaning had not been improved (Sidwell et al. 1970:6).

From its inception through the late 1940s (and perhaps later), the Lab employed from one to two Navajo women weavers to weave sample rugs of the various grades of wool produced by the experimental flocks. They worked in the main Laboratory building (FW 701, Resource 1), where their rugs were on public display (Brooks 1992). Daisy Tauglechee, later a renowned weaver, began her career at the Sheep Lab (Popelish 1992b). To assess the durability of the sample rugs, the Sheep Lab devised a clever and newsworthy field test:

Navajo rugs of the future will owe a debt to the hurrying feet of the thousands of Interior Department employees who eat their lunches in the cafeteria of the new Interior Building in Washington [D.C.] . . . sections of Navajo rugs, produced under varying conditions and containing wool of varying degrees of quality . . . will be placed on the floor of the cafeteria where the traffic is heaviest. In this way the experts [at the Sheep Lab] who are working to improve the quality of Navajo wool and Navajo rugs, believe they can obtain the equivalent of years of hard wear in a much shorter space of time. (USDI Indian Service 1939.)

In 1942 Cooper relinquished the reins of command to James O. Grandstaff. Grandstaff would head the facility until 1952. Under this new leadership, and to mitigate the weaknesses still present in the Corriedale-Romney outcrosses, the Sheep Lab began breeding ewes of that strain with Lincoln and Cotswold rams. The resulting offspring contained only one-quarter churro blood. To remedy this, “. . . additional crosses of Navajo [i.e., churro] and Columbia and Navajo and Romney were made, and these crossbred sheep were reciprocally mated to the Lincoln and Cotswold cross sheep” (Sidwell et al. 1970:6).

The resulting creature was one-eighth Cotswold, one-eighth Columbia, one-eighth Lincoln, one-sixteenth Corriedale, three-sixteenths Romney, and three-eighths churro. Once this eclectic strain was established, assumedly in the 1940’s, it was reciprocally bred at the Lab until at least 1962. According to statistics for that year, this sheep weighed an average of 10 to 12 pounds more than the Lab’s improved purebred churro, while producing a fleece that was only slightly inferior to the churro’s with regard to suitability for hand weaving (Sidwell et al. 1970:6).

The Twelfth Annual Report of the Sheep Lab included a section entitled "Some of the Important Accomplishments of the Laboratory during its First 12 Years, 1936-1948." Seventeen items are listed, e.g.,

2. A method has been developed for quickly evaluating fleece quality of Navajo sheep from small samples.

4. . . . the type of wool suitable for hand weaving and with good market value has been determined.

10. Average grease fleece weight of Navajo ewes at yearling age has been increased from 3.8 pounds to about 6.3 pounds . . .

16. Crossbreeding of Navajo sheep has resulted in marked improvement in body type and conformation of the offspring at market age and maturity, without appreciable loss in fertility of breeding animals or livability of lambs (Dodge papers, Folder FY 1949.)

Ironically, while the Sheep Lab personnel were striving to produce wool for handloom production, the Navajo rug weaving cottage industry was declining. By late 1948, Navajo sheep producers were selling an estimated 90 percent of their wool on the commercial market. In response to this, Grandstaff’s researchers began, in 1949, to develop a desert-hardy, fine-wool sheep that would produce a “good quality feeder lamb” (Sidwell et al. 1970:6.) – analogous to a dual purpose cattle breed such as the Shorthorn. Under this breeding program, 120 of the three-eighths churro blood ewes were divided into four groups of 30 sheep each. Two of these groups were mated to Targhee rams, one to a Merino ram, and one to a Debouillet ram. A group of 30 churro ewes was mated to a Rambouillet ram. T,800 this regimen was repeated the next year. Subsequently:

Only Targhee rams were used on the crossbred ewes after 1950. The offspring of all these matings were then mated inter se. By 1956, sufficient numbers of crossbred ewes and rams were accumulated in this line so that the Targhee matings were discontinued, and the line was perpetuated by the inter se mating of the crossbred offspring. (Sidwell et al. 1970:6-7.)

By the late 1950s, the Sheep Lab flock numbered some 1,500 to1ted of four sub-populations: the improved, pure churro stock, the three-eighths churro coarse wool crossbreds, the commercial-grade fine wool and meat Targhee crossbreds, and a four-group flock for a public education program on selective breeding, described below.

As noted earlier, the years after 1942 marked a change in emphasis in the pursuit of the Sheep Lab’s goals. While its breeding programs were maintained, attention was focused on the formulation of improved range management practices and public (i.e., Navajo) education. The Soil Conservation Service, the third partner in the Sheep Lab undertaking, conducted studies on the carrying capacity of the ranges used for the Sheep Lab projects and constructed the reservoirs, dams, and wells on the facility to provide water for the sheep. The SCS was also involved in the reseeding of the range areas used for grazing the Lab’s flocks. In addition, the Lab's importance as a source for good hand-weaving wool for Navajo weavers increased, as the tribe's sheep production became more and more oriented toward the commercial market. This phenomenon is revealed in the following figures for hand-weaving quality wool sold by the Lab to individual Indians, to the Navajo Arts and Crafts Guild and other organizations, and to Indian traders during the years of 1949-1952:

  • 1949-1950: 3443 pounds of grease wool and 288 pounds of scoured wool.
  • 1950-1951: 4394 pounds of grease wool and 2224 pounds of scoured wool.
  • 1951-1952: 13,424.8 pounds of grease wool, 1602.5 pounds of scoured wool, and 5171 pounds of "wool top." (Dodge papers: Folder FY 1952: Annual Report, Fiscal Year 1952).

In 1952, Stanley L. Smith became the director of the Sheep Lab, a position he would hold until 1964. He succeeded John Storr, who served as Interim Director (Popelish 1992b) after Grandstaff's resignation to accept a position with the Office of Experiment Stations in Washington, D.C., in March of that year (Annual Report, Fiscal Year 1952, Dodge papers, Folder FY 1952). Smith's ascension to power marked the focusing of the Lab’s attention on the development of education programs to impart the findings of its research to its Navajo public. The first program undertaken under this aegis concentrated on teaching the importance of selective breeding in the improvement of their flocks. During the winter of 1952-53, Lab personnel traded 400 of their coarse wool (i.e., improved churro) ewes for “average reservation ewes." These ewes were divided into four equal groups (Sidwell et al. 1970:8-9).

Group 1 ewes were mated to ten Targhee rams obtained from the United States Sheep Experiment Station, Dubois, Idaho. Group 2 ewes were mated to 10 Rambouillet rams obtained from the Navajo tribal ram herd . . . . Group 3 ewes were mated to 10 coarse-wooled rams produced in the weaving-wool flock maintained at the laboratory. Group 4 ewes were mated to average reservation rams and served as a control group . . . Ewe lambs from groups 1, 2, and 3 were saved on the basis of their individual merit. But in group 4, they were selected at random. Only in group 4 were any ram lambs saved, and they also were selected at random. In groups 1, 2, and 3, new rams of the specified breeding were used at least every two years. (Sidwell et al. 1970:9)

This program continued at least until 1962, as statistics for that year reveal the overall inferiority of the randomly selected Group 4 sheep in comparison to the other three, selectively bred, groups (Sidwell et al. 1970:9).

Results of this and other research, including SCS range management studies, were imparted to the public by means of periodic “field days” and workshops. The annual “Sheep Lab Day” evolved into a real fete that included speeches by politicians and animal husbandry experts from far and wide. Although most of the attendees were Navajo, Pueblo Indians from Acoma, Zuni, Laguna, and perhaps other pueblos also participated. The Lab’s unique research also attracted national and international interest. Visitors and researchers came from far and wide to visit, including a party of Arabian nobility in October, 1943 (Dodge papers: FY 1944).

Daily Activities and Personnel of the Lab

The annual cycle of Sheep Lab breeding activities involved: (1) weaning and shipping lambs in October and November; (2) semen testing rams in November; (3) transporting ewes from the El Morro range to the Sheep Lab after weaning; (4) grouping and branding sheep according to research plans; (5) introducing rams to ewe groups for breeding about December 1; (6) turning ewes out to pasture in mid-January after the 45-day breeding season; (7) shearing sheep in April (see Photo 12); (8) confining ewes in pens for lambing in May and identifying ewe-lamb pairs; (9) transporting lambs and ewes to the El Morro range in early summer; and (10) holding a field day at the Sheep Lab in the spring as a joint USDA-BIA-New Mexico State University Extension activity (Copeland 1988b:19). In the laboratory, after cleaning (see Photo 13), the physical characteristics of the wool were analyzed, using optical equipment developed at the Sheep Lab to examine magnified images of wool cross-sections. As discussed above, after the wool's characteristics had been identified, Navajo weavers wove rugs and sample textiles (Parman 1976:129).

No personnel records for the first decade of the Sheep Lab's operation have been located to date. The 10th, 11th, and 12th annual reports each contain a roster of employees. In the 10th report (FY 1946), certain positions are identified as "Indian" jobs, as indicated by the abbreviation "Ind." in their titles. The designation does not appear in the later reports. Some examples from the personnel rosters follow:

10th Annual Report, FY 1946 (Dodge papers: FY 1946)

  • Wolf, Harold W., Animal Fiber Tech, P-3 (duties = "Wool Technician"). Hired, March 1, 1945; resigned August 28, 1946.
  • Anderson, Alfred T., Stockman, CPC-7 (duties = "Operations"). Hired October 1, 1936.
  • Schild, Edna F., Clerk, CAF-4 (duties = "Clerical"). Hired November 11, 1936.
  • Gleason, Jimmie, Ass't. Ind. Gen. Mech. (duties = "Maintenance"). Hired April 1, 1942.
  • Chadacloi, Marion, Ass't. Ind. Lab. Aid (duties = "Lab. Aid"). Hired January 12, 1944.
  • Dentclaw, Jessie, Ass't. Ind. Lab Aid (duties = "Weaver"). Hired October 1, 1942.
  • Bia, Wilfred, Ass't. Ind. Stockman (duties = "Livestock"). Hired March 19, 1946; resigned August 16, 1946.

11th Annual Report, FY 1947 (Dodge papers: FY 1947)

  • Sidwell, George M., Animal Husbandman, P-2 (duties = "Genetics"). Hired December 1, 1946.
  • Navarre, Orval LeRoy, Stockman, CPC-7 (duties = "Operations"). Hired February 6, 1947.
  • Costello, Araminta D., Clerk-stenographer, CAF-4 (duties = "Clerical"). Hired July 1, 1947.
  • Bia, Wilfred G., Agricultural Aid, SP-3 (duties = "Assistant"). Hired December 16, 1946; resigned September 15, 1947.
  • Fisher, Phoebe, Weaver, CPC-4 (duties = "Weaving"). Hired May 22, 1942; Admin. furlough: October 17, 1947.

12th Annual Report, FY 1948 (Dodge papers: FY 1948)

  • Christensen, James O., Animal Husbandman (duties = "Wool Tech."). Hired February 3, 1947.
  • Navarre, Orval LeRoy, Stockman (duties = "Sheep Management"). Hired February 6, 1947.
  • Singer, Jerome H., Statistical Clerk (duties = "Sheep Records"). Hired January 28, 1948; resigned May 28, 1948.
  • Deschene, Fred, Agricultural Aid (duties = "Miscellaneous"). Hired October 2, 1947.

Records from the later days of the Lab, i.e., from the early 1950s through its closure in 1966, are relatively abundant, in part due to the personal curatorial efforts of Alison Dodge, the Lab Clerk from 1951 to 1961 (Dodge papers). Even though these records largely post-date the Lab’s era of significance, they may be assumed to be typical of that institution’s transactions in many ways, notably in their capacity to document the presence and duties of the Navajos who worked at the Lab.

Mrs. Dodge, herself, became fixture at the Lab during her tenure there. Sheep Lab correspondence indicates that she served as acting Director in the later Lab years, during the reign of Stanley Smith. She was apparently the only woman to achieve such a status in the Lab's history. In addition to her administrative duties, Mrs. Dodge was entrusted with the "care and feeding" of visitors and was at times the only Laboratory staff present on the grounds. She lived in Building No. FW 709 with its associated garage (FW 710) and root cellar (FW 732) (collectively known as Resource 18) (Popelish 1992b; USDI Indian Service 1957).

Before coming to the Sheep Lab to work, Mrs. Dodge was employed by the BIA at Window Rock, the capital of the Navajo Nation, from about 1943 to 1951. She is remembered as saying that she "knew" the Sheep Lab from its beginnings. She was once married to Thomas Dodge, the son of Navajo traditionalist Chee Dodge (Popelish 1992b; Linda Popelish, personal communication, March, 2002). Thomas Dodge was an "educated" Navajo, a lawyer who had a practice in Santa Fe in the early 1930s. He was elected Chairman of the Navajo Tribal Council in 1933. Although Thomas's father, Chee, was bitterly opposed by J.C. Morgan of the Returned Students Association (see below), Thomas and Morgan reportedly maintained a friendship despite of their political differences (Parman 1976:39, 41).

Among the Dodge papers there exists a small "time book" listing some of the Navajo workers associated with the Sheep Lab during the years 1951‑1953, e.g., Fred Deschene, Calvin Gleason, Jimmy Gleason, Sam Martinez, and Coffee Chili ("Time Book" GPO No. 50193). Some of these names reappear elsewhere in the Papers, on "purchase orders" documenting the wage rates of Indian and Hispanic workers at the Lab during 1952 and 1953:

  • Hoska Mariano, sheepherder. Worked 72 days in 1953 at $165.00 per month.
  • Homer Dick, sheepherder. Worked in 1952 and 1953 at $165.00 per month.
  • Ann Johnson (Acoma Pueblo), cleaning services, "6 lab & office rooms." Worked in 1952 and 1953 at $0.83 per day or $25.00 per month.
  • Coffee Chile (Navajo). Worked as a fence rider in 1952 at $35.00 per month. Worked as a sheepherder in 1952 at $3.33 per day and in 1953 at $100.00 per month. A note on another list states that he was terminated on December 4, 1953.
  • Vicente Coho, sheepherder. Worked in 1952 (wages not listed) and in 1953 at $5.50 per day.
  • Mr. Rafael Tapia (Hispanic?), shearing. Worked in 1953 at $0.35 - $0.70 per sheep.
  • Dan Martinez, sheepherder. Worked in 1952 at $165.00 per month.
  • Sam Martinez, sheepherder. Worked in 1952 at $165.00 per month. (Popelish 1992b.)

A map of the Sheep Lab buildings bearing the date "October, 1957" lists the occupant of building FW 716 as "Deschene." This may be the Fred Deschene listed above. FW 716 is listed as a wood frame "T.P.G." and is situated about 80 feet west of the Warehouse, FW 711 (Resource 6). No trace of FW 716 remains today. On the employee list mentioned above, there is a note written beside Mr. Deschene's name that reads, "might be person in 'More Money for Wool' he was from AZ." Another note proclaims that he was a sheepherder at the Lab and was also a "Navajo Medicine Man" (Popelish 1992b).

Coffee Chili was affiliated with the Lab as early as 1939. The reason for his termination in 1953 has not been identified. Chili was a well-known cowboy and sheepherder in the area; his photos still grace the walls of the Ft. Wingate trading post. Mrs. Meroe Smith, Stanley Smith's wife, remembers him thusly:

He talked Navajo and Spanish all at once. Once in a while you could get an English word. . . . He was an interesting old fellow, singing . . . Kind of a gruff individual . . . (Brooks 1992.)

Calvin Gleason was a long-time employee of the Sheep Lab. Notes in the Dodge papers describe him as "a sheepherder and all around helper." He had been one of the famous "code talkers" in WWII (Brooks 1992) and had lost an arm in that conflict. His brother, Jimmy, "was a road grader, took care of vehicles at the lab" (Popelish 1992b). Per the 1957 map, "C. Gleason" was residing in Staff Residence FW 719 (Resource 22) and "J. Gleason" lived next door, in Staff Residence FW 734 (Resource 24). The latter cottage was apparently the last of the Mayers, Murray, and Phillips buildings to be completed at the Lab (USDI Indian Service 1957).

The annual shearing of the sheep, which occurred in the month of April, involved the participation of two more Southwestern ethnic groups. The Sheep Lab retained the services of Hispanic and Basque shearers for the job, some of whom were local and some of whom came from as far afield as the Albuquerque area. One of the local shearers was named Pistol Navarre (a Basque surname), whose occupation is also listed as "head chaparrell" (Popelish 1992b). According to his wife, Billie, Navarre contracted with the Sheep Lab to provide his services as a shearer. Two other, Hispanic, shearers were named Rafael Tapia (see above) and Abe Peña (Popelish 1992b). Many of these men returned year after year, and may be considered as integral to the functioning of the Lab as the Anglo researchers and the Navajo herders and clientele (Linda Popelish, personal communication, March, 2002).

Notes accompanying the Dodge papers provide a brief list of some of the "Anglos" employed by the Lab, mostly during its last decade of existence. Included are Earl Ray, Geneticist, 1958-1961; Jack Ruttle; Gordon Jessup, Jr., Animal Husbandman, 1951-1961; George Sidwell; Vern B. Swanson; Glen Perkins; Tom Hall; and Clair Terrill. Sidwell, Ruttle, and Ray authored the monograph, Improvement of Navajo Sheep. That document provided much of the information on the Lab's breeding programs for this discussion (Sidwell, Ruttle, and Ray, 1970). The October, 1957, map lists the occupant of Staff Residence FW 707 (Resource 16, associated with FW 708, Resource 17, a garage and "dugout") as "Ruttle," the occupant of FW 703 (Resource 12) as "Perkins," and the occupant of the Director's Residence, FW 702 (Resource 1) as "Smith" (USDI Indian Service 1957).

A 1956 building inventory conducted for the transfer of the property from the Department of Interior to the Department of Agriculture in shows that the Sheep Lab included, at that time, 27 buildings and miscellaneous structures valued at $64,000. There were seven residences, one office/laboratory, eight garages/sheds, four gas storage areas and pumps, five vacant buildings, and two miscellaneous structures, identified as a barbecue and a latrine (Copeland 1988b:19).

On April 30, 1966, the Southwestern Range and Sheep Breeding Laboratory closed, following the opening of the U.S. Meat Animal Research Center in Clay Center, Nebraska. After guiding the Lab through its era of range management research and public education programs, Stanley Smith stepped down as Director in 1964. R. Dean Humphrey became the last Director, from 1964 to 1966. It may be assumed that his main task was to bring the Lab’s programs to their conclusions, in preparation for the facility's demise. The Sheep Lab was closed because the USDA, in one of the federal government’s cyclical “belt-tightening” phases, required that each of its meat animal research branches close a facility. The Sheep Lab research program was one of the chosen on the rationale that its work did not benefit the national sheep industry, as a whole, but rather only a single ethnic group. Beginning on August 8, 1966, the facilities were used by the USDA Forest Service, as the Gallup District Office of the Cibola National Forest. On November 30, 1967, the Department of Agriculture Research Services transferred control of the facilities and the associated land to the Forest Service (Copeland 1988b:19).

Closure of the Lab
Although the Sheep Lab never produced “perfect Navajo range sheep,” it may be considered as successful in many other ways. In addition to its annual reports, Lab staff published at least 32 technical papers on sheep husbandry in many technical and livestock trade publications. Range management practices devised by the SCS component of the Lab partnership are still used on the Navajo Reservation today. Researchers and lay people from all over the world made the journey through the hitherto-unknown scrubland of the Ft. Wingate area to witness a research program unique in its scope and impact. And perhaps most poignantly, it evolved, throughout the 30 years of its existence, into a close-knit and caring multicultural community whose humanism embodied the best of the New Deal ideals that spawned it.


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Essay taken from "Southwest Range and Sheep Breedinig Laboratory," National Register of Historic Places, May 2002