I've been reading some interesting books lately. The first is one I happened upon in my public library, called "Sheepwagon: Home on the Range" by Nancy Weidel, published in 2001. This is a fine exploration of the history of sheep ranching in the western US, from the perspective of the lowly sheepwagon. Ms. Weidel discusses sheepwagons from almost every angle: how they were invented, how they were constructed, who lived in them, and how they were gradually abandoned as the sheep industry fell into decline, only to become collector's items in the present day. The only angle she missed was the one I found to be the most fascinating; what was under them. In most of the historic photos in her book there was a shadowy, unmentioned figure, essential to the functioning of any sheep ranch: a sheepdog.
Although Ms. Weidel assumes that these dogs were all Border Collies, the photos themselves do not indicate this. I scanned the photos into my computer and cropped them to the dogs, and found a very wide variety of types. Most would fall into categories we now would call English Shepherds, Australian Shepherds, or Farm Collies. Very few look much like the modern Border Collie. I assembled my cropped photos in a photo essay called Sheepwagon Dogs so you can see for yourself.
The other book was one generously loaned to me by Linda Rorem: "Kelley of the Triune", published in 1979. This biography of a real working sheepdog in the 1920's and 30's was fascinating on many levels.
The author, Clel Georgetta, inherited and ran his father's ranch (changing its name and brand to 'Triune') as young man, from the early 1920's until about 1940, when he sold it to the state of Nevada to add to an Indian reservation. He went on to become a lawyer, writer and ultimately a figure in state politics. However, it was his habit of meticulous diary-keeping from an early age which made this particular document possible.
Kelley was a pup abandoned at the ranch by an intinerant cowboy, who told Georgetta that he'd gotten him from a large Nevada ranch, of a line originally brought from Australia. He said, "Some call them American shepherd, but the foreman told me the right name for the breed is border collie because they came from Scotland, the south part of Scotland." (p 2)
But Kelley, from Georgetta's description, neither looked much like nor worked much like a modern Border Collie (which were only bred to work cattle beginning around the 1980's). He turned out to be an excellent cowdog — the Triune was a cattle ranch at the time — being a close worker and a hard heeler. The cattle had to be driven long distances and the dogs were drivers only. No one could use a heading dog, since they would stop the flow and rile the cows. That proved to be Kelley's downfall as a cowdog. One day he was sent after horses and was kicked so hard he almost died, after which he never heeled a cow again, and would only head. Now useless, he spent years tied at home, until Georgetta turned to sheep ranching and he was tried out on this new species.
At first it was a disaster; Kelley killed the first sheep he was put on. It was back to the tether, until one day, out of total desperation from lack of dogs, Georgetta put him on the sheep with a muzzle on. In a few days, Kelley realized he wasn't to bite, and the muzzle was removed. He went on to become the most valuable sheepdog Georgetta ever owned, one coveted by every sheepman in the area.
Kelley not only could cover one side of a two thousand head herd on his own, he successfully tracked many lost bands, would stay with a flock of newly lambed ewes all night alone and keep them safe, and once won Georgetta fifty dollars (a month's wages for a herder) by catching, throwing and holding a ram in an open field all in a few moments, a ram that had been chased by five men, two on horseback, for some time without success. He was such a help loading lambs into train cars that the lamb buyer once offered Georgetta a thousand dollars for him, an astonishing sum at that time.
Kelley was a barking, close-working, grippy dog, strong enough to work cattle, loose-eyed, with an undeviating loyalty to one man; these are typical characteristics of Aussies, not Border Collies. He wouldn't work for anyone else unless Georgetta was present, and would only stay alone with a flock if he had Georgetta's coat to sleep on. Once he got lost while visiting an Indian reservation and Georgetta had to drive away without him. He camped miles away at a sheep bedding ground Kelley had not been to that year. In the night, Kelley appeared; Georgetta put it down to mind reading (but most likely Kelley had tracked his tire treads). This book is available online as a .pdf file.
Both books both vividly illustrate the daily and seasonal round of the enormous industry that was American sheep ranching. They also document the type of dog that was used. These rough-coated general-purpose herding dogs were rarely the crouching, black and white Border Collies which later took over the sheep business. Much more likely that they were the progenitors of what we now call the Australian Shepherd and of the English Shepherd. Merling and a docked or natural bob tail were variations that were eventually selected for and dubbed "Australian Shepherd" characteristics. Kelley is an outstanding example of the many good dogs that came from different parts of the world to contribute to the American herding dog.
But originally they were all just dogs, good dogs, that earned their keep all day and every day, in all weathers, essential tools and loyal friends.