FIRST FLOCK: Merino Mania & White House Wool

Hey, have you heard? It’s election season.

For most of this season, politics is a spectator sport. But here in Indiana it is finally our turn to step in and play a round—the Indiana primary is next week. So in the spirit of all things presidential, we’re doing a special post this week: The Sheep of the White House!

It turns out that sheep have featured in the annals of U.S. presidential history not once but twice—both Thomas Jefferson and Woodrow Wilson raised sheep on the White House lawn.

These sheep are part of a larger story about nationalism, industry, austerity, and husbandry, and at the heart are three important rams: E.I. DuPont’s Merino, Jefferson’s Shetland, and Wilson’s Shropshire. So without further ado, let’s meet these guys.*

MERINO MANIA: Don Pedro

Fiber folks know merino wool as a soft, breathable, luxury material, but it was also at the center of early conversations about U.S. economic independence. Although nowadays merino sheep are most populous in Australia, where wool is a major sector of the economy, the breed originated in Spain and was highly coveted by other countries in the 18th and early 19th centuries. In the United States, the first two decades of the nineteenth century saw a veritable Merino Mania.

In the early years of the republic, when competition with Europe was steep and the U.S. government was invested in establishing a sustainable domestic economy, high hopes were placed on the acquisition of merino sheep on this side of the Atlantic. Thomas Jefferson (1743–1826) is famous for things like writing the Declaration of Independence and being the third president of the United States, but did you know that he was also an ovine enthusiast? It’s true! As president, he liked to unwind by reading sheep husbandry manuals and visiting nearby farms. And his greatest desire was to bring Merino sheep to America in order to produce the finest fibers in the world—i.e. to beat Europe at their own game.

Importing a Merino sheep  was not an easy task, as the breed was closely guarded by Spain. But in 1801, the venerable Don Pedro landed stateside. Don Pedro was one of four rams brought westward by the Delaware gunpowder magnate E.I. DuPont (1771–1834). Another of those four was destined for Jefferson, who would finally have his Merino dreams realized… but alas, three of the rams, including Jefferson’s, perished in the voyage. DuPont’s ram, Don Pedro, was the lone first Merino sheep in the U.S.

He went on to sire flocks for DuPont and several other estates for the next decade. Upon Don Pedro’s death in 1811, DuPont’s brother-in-law carved a statue of him, using the ram’s original horns.

JEFFERSON’S “Abominable Animal”

In 1807, without his Merino but still invested in the homespun economic potential of sheep, Jefferson brought a flock to the White House grounds for the first time. This presidential flock was made up of “common country sheep” from his Monticello estate and one Shetland ram. Though Jefferson proudly described him as “round and beautiful” in a letter to his granddaughter, the ram turned out to be a bit rowdy.

Ok, that’s an understatement: the ram was a killing machine. He mauled numerous passersby, including William Keough who was, according to the above letter, “attacked and severely wounded and bruised by your excellency’s ram.” Even worse, the ram fatally mauled a young boy.

With good reason, Jefferson had the ram removed from the White House and sent down to Monticello. This ended his spree against humans, but he turned now to victims in his own fold: he killed three other rams, including his own son. At this point, Jefferson’s assessment went from “round and beautiful” to “abominable” and “dangerous.” Eventually, the ram was put down to prevent any further casualties.

WHITE HOUSE WOOL: Old Ike

When Jefferson left office in 1809, that was the end of White House sheep for more than a century. What finally brought them back was a world war.

In 1918, alongside efforts to help American households (including the White House) conserve precious wartime resources, President Woodrow Wilson (1856–1924) and his wife Edith bought a flock of eighteen ewes and one ram—Old Ike—to assist in the war relief. The sheep “mowed” the lawn and therefore freed up fighting-aged men from the grounds crew to enlist in the war; they also provided fleeces to be donated to the Red Cross or auctioned off to raise funds. People were willing to pay A LOT for “White House Wool“—in fact, the fleeces sold for as much as $1,000 per pound.

Old Ike, while slightly less violent than Jefferson’s unruly ram (only slightly), was a notable character in his own right. He contributed to the growing flock and boasted an impressive fleece (his sold for $10,000 per pound!) but the truly memorable thing about Old Ike was his penchant for tobacco. That’s right—he was addicted to cigars. An obituary following Old Ike’s death in 1927 even claims that he died while chewing: “Just before he died Mr. Probart [Ike’s owner after he left the White House] gave him a chew of tobacco, and he dropped off peacefully munching it.”

Jefferson and Wilson presided in unique political climates, but both were invested in the patriotism and practicality of the homegrown. In fact, Jefferson declared that “homespun is become the spirit of the times”and proudly wore a suit of American-made wool to his final State ceremony in 1809.

So now I want to know: which current candidate has a sheep plan in their platform???

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*By the way, when I wrote last week about the status of men in the fiber world, I had human men in mind. But hey, let’s give these rams their due.

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