Sheep and lettuce were mainstays in Routt County agriculture from the early days

Tom Ross
South Routt rancher Wanda Redmond will speak about the history of lettuce production in South Routt during Ag Appreciation Week 2016.
file photo

— Orval “Junior” Bedell, a born storyteller if there ever was one, regaled an audience of about 50 people here March 21 with one of the quirkiest anecdotes in the history of agriculture in Routt County.

“I sheared sheep for 35 years, so I had a pretty good taste of that,” Bedell, who is in his 70s, said, “… Corey Guire raised Suffolks,” in the lower Elk River Valley near Cullen’s Corner, “and one day, a bighorn ram came down from Copper Ridge and bred with his ewes and created a whole new species!”

As I recall from firsthand experience, those were some of the strangest looking lambs that were never exhibited at the Routt County Fair.

Bedell is a walking, talking link to pioneer days in North Routt County, which makes him a treasure of local lore. He was joined by two other speakers on Monday’s program: rancher Wanda Redmond, of South Routt, who worked in the lettuce industry near Yampa, and former Routt County Commissioner Dennis Fisher, who was in charge of caring for a band of ewes as a teenager living in Strawberry Park.

Steamboat Today reported in 2010 that Junior learned the ranching business from his father, Orval, whose parents bought a ranch near Hahn’s Peak in 1918. His mother’s family, the Gillilands, homesteaded in that area in 1890.

Bedell’s talk at Library Hall was sponsored by the Community Ag Alliance, Tread of Pioneer Museum and Bud Werner Memorial Library as part of Ag Appreciation Week.

Bedell has been a sheep shearer, farrier, horse trainer, calf roper and outfitter, and one quickly gathers that his personality defines the traditional culture of North Routt.

There were violent episodes in the history of cattle and sheep ranching in Northwest Colorado (going back to the era when present-day Routt and Moffat counties were a single county), but the sheep wars were really exaggerated, according to Bedell.

“Most ranchers raised both sheep and cattle,” he said.

And as far as the myth that grazing sheep damage the range, Bedell said, horses are more apt to harm the native grasses.

“Most of those stories are lies,” he said. “It turned around the most during the depression, when wool (prices) got sky high, and you couldn’t give cattle away. Some of those old boys got into sheep to survive.”

When lettuce was king

Redmond told her audience about the days when head lettuce was a significant cash crop in the fields between the towns of Yampa and Toponas. She worked as a girl in the fields and later, during summers between college semesters, in the office of a shipping operation.

“Almost 100 years ago, the lettuce and produce industry became a great important part of the (local) economy,” she said. “By 1925, supposedly $250,000 was brought into South Routt and a few years later, half a million. Between Toponas and Yampa, around 1,500 acres of lettuce were planted in 1927.”

“Reportedly, the managers of the “Waldorf Astoria were very happy with head lettuce from the Yampa area,” Redmond said.

Growing lettuce was labor intensive; the heads had to be thinned so as to separate them by the width of two hoe blades, and Redmond experienced the labor firsthand.

“I grew up using that hoe,” she said. “I had many blisters on my hands from doing the hoeing work in my early teens.”

Ultimately, new machinery, which eliminated some of the need for human labor and was designed for the larger fields of California, supplanted the South Routt lettuce industry.

A nation of immigrants

Fisher, whose ancestors homesteaded on Deep Creek in 1910, told his audience he was raised on a small ranch in Strawberry Park where a Future Farmers of America project required him to care for 20 sheep.

He took a scholarly approach to place the European settlement of the American West and Northwest Colorado — primarily by people intent on agricultural — in its historical context, one that emphasized new possibilities and independent actions.

An avid reader of Alex de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who came to the United States in 1831 to study its evolving social structure and wound up writing a book, “Democracy in America,” Fisher said that, when European immigrants came to America, the European mind was altered in a way that gave birth to a new way of looking at careers and opportunity.

“We are all part of that,” Fisher said. “The frontier transformed people. When Europeans came here, they were able to transform from a caste laden mind into independent minded (people).”

To reach Tom Ross, call 970-871-4205, email or follow him on Twitter @ThomasSRoss1

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