By Mike McCoy, Executive Director, Kern County Museum
Basque immigrants from the Pyrenees mountains of France and Spain were first drawn to California by the Gold Rush in the mid-19th century. They found out though, that providing the miners with lamb and wool was more profitable than digging for gold.
Moving into the 20th century, the cattle and sheep business took off in California’s Central Valley. The old California ranchos began to give way to large livestock operations that used rail lines to feed a hungry nation. World War I gave the sheep business a boost with a high demand for mutton and wool. A 100-year-old tradition was soon created where young Basque men would follow their sheep bands up into the High Sierras for summer grazing.
The young Basque shepherds, leaving hard scrabble pastures and farms in the Pyrenees Mountains, often showed up in Bakersfield or later Boise, with just the clothes on their backs and a small bit of money. Local labor contractors worked out of the legendary boarding houses that served as a home base, bank, post office, and social hall for the young immigrants. They connected the young Basque men with work on local ranches, farms, shearing sheds, and the Sierra sheep camps. This was their entry point to a new country.
The sheep trail started in the high desert or sometimes in the San Joaquin Valley where large herds of sheep would be organized into bands and then connected with the young shepherds. The sheep would move into pasturage climbing higher and higher up established trails with the spring and summer season.
When the sheep reached the meadows of the Eastern Sierra, tents were used for shelter, usually erected in aspen groves. Sometimes, a stone oven was built for baking bread. Pack mules were used to carry essentials and working dogs were the shepherd’s only companions. A camp tender brought supplies for the herder every three to eight days. Later, wooden wagons provided more protection from the weather than tents and were in use until the 1960s when used travel trailers took their place.
To celebrate the tradition of the herding migration, the Kern County Museum is in the process of developing a Sheep Camp exhibit thanks to the generosity of the Hay Brother’s Sheep Company and Jim Etcheverry. Local businessman Mark Parsons restored one of the vintage sheep camp trailers for the exhibit along with a water tank and a drinking trough. Local historian Steve Bass contributed several artifacts related to the sheep business and camps for display.
For the thousands of young Basque immigrants, working in the sheep camps of California was a rite of passage. The work was difficult, sometimes dangerous, and very lonely. Yet, many old-timers would say, it was the best time of their lives.