The Canals Made Ohio a Leader in Sheep Production
The development of sheep raising in Ohio during the 1840s in the Midwest was mainly due to the Ohio and Erie Canal which was used to transport wool, butter, and cheese. Prior to the canals, early nineteenth century shepherds supplied eastern seaboard markets by droving wethers, carrying their own fleeces, on a route along Lake Erie, through the Mohawk lowland and the Hudson valley to New York City. From about 1817, until it was supplanted by canals, droving from the West was estimated to include about 50,000 head of sheep per year with half coming from Ohio.
Exports over the canal rose from 107,794 pounds of lamb in 1840 to 8,805, 817 pounds in 1850. The number of sheep in Ohio increased 94 percent during the forties; and outside the state, where sheep raising had been insignificant, the increase was 144 percent. In 1840, when the federal census first included livestock numbers, Ohio, although largely unsettled, was amongst the leaders in raising sheep. In 1840, Summit County had 90 to 150 sheep per square acre; and sheep were 25% of the total animal units. When the 1850 census was taken, Ohio was second only to Vermont in sheep density, and in total numbers it had half of all sheep in the north-central states. By 1860, Ohio was in first place. In 1870, Ohio reached its peak with 121 sheep per square mile. By 1880 the rising sheep population of western states was impressive, but Ohio's average density was still more than three times that of any other state, except Vermont.
Census figures in following decades showed a decline in the East and rise in the west, while Ohio, continued to be a leader in sheep per unit area until overtaken by Texas in 1950. In 1945, with 56 million sheep, Americans consumed about six pounds a month; and wool and meat combined to drive the market. World War II changed the sheep market, as canned mutton fed to soldiers turned many young men against the idea of ever eating lamb. Then wool demand changed too as other meats began taking over the market. A 2011 study showed that one in two Americans had never tried lamb and that American less than a pound of lamb per year on average.
Today, Ohio is still the largest sheep producing state east of the Mississippi with 119,000 sheep. There are now 5.2 million sheep in the country; and the average sheep farm in Ohio is 40 head. According to the last census, there were 18 farms in Summit County that had sheep, making Summit 18th out of 83 counties.
Sheep are Part of our History
Sheep were domesticated 10,000 years ago. 4,000 years ago, man learned to spin wool. Sheep make the spread of civilization possible. Sheep production is the oldest organized industry, with wool being the first international trade commodity. Sheep were brought to Spain by the Romans resulting in the Merino breed. Anyone caught taking a Merino out of Spain could be put to death, but they were smuggled into England. The wool trade helped finance Columbus’ explorations of the New World where he introduced sheep into the Americas. In Europe, England and Spain became rivals in the wool trade. England did not approve of exporting sheep to the new world so they had to be smuggled into the colonies. By 1698, America was exporting wool goods, and it was the restrictions on raising sheep and wool manufacturing, along with the Stamp Act, that led to the Revolutionary War. Weaving homespun wool garments was a sign of patriotism during the revolution. As the country was settled, people were required to have sheep in some areas for the jobs the textile area created, insuring the success of the local economy.