Fall Issue 2010
Bucklin man, former sheep rancher, now builds sheepherder wagons
by Mary Hooper
Maybe it’s that Americans have always preferred beef to lamb that accounts for the cowboy and his herd of dogies as an enduring symbol of the West.
But when it comes to rugged individualism, grit and the ability to endure loneliness and hardship, the West could just as easily be symbolized by shepherds, or sheepherders as they’re usually called, and their wooly flocks.
Marvin Richter, who lives on a small ranch near Bucklin, grew up in Thomas County in northwestern Kansas where, during the grazing season, his family had about 90,000 feeder lambs on wheat pasture in the 1940s.
Now, he says, there probably aren’t that many sheep in the entire state.
The use of synthetics in the clothing industry, which became widespread in the 1950s, caused the bottom to fall out of the wool market, he said.
“Fine wool made the sheep business big. Wool just about paid for their feed. There is still some demand for fine wool. China buys a lot of it. At one time because of the demand for fine wool, there were actually more sheep (in the West and Plains states) than cattle.”
Though retired from sheep ranching, Richter remains, you should excuse the expression, a dyed-in-the-wool sheep man.
“I got that bad disease when I was a teenager and it’s something you never can shake,” he said.
As a young man, he moved sheep by rail from Kansas to Arizona where the animals grazed on irrigated alfalfa in the winter.
“When the lambs were finished in Arizona in the spring, we shipped them five days by rail to the Kansas City stockyards. A double-decked, 40-foot car held about 250 head. They unloaded twice to feed and rest on the way.
“Every little town had a stockyard in the Fifties,” he said.
Richter and his wife, Nancy, moved to Bucklin from Arizona 12 years ago to be close to his daughter and son-in-law, Nancy and Joe Moore, who raise Texas longhorns and horses on the Moore Ranch, which also offers ranch vacations, roundups, cattle drives and cowboy schools to the public.
Now Richter’s “bad disease” finds expression in the unusual hobby of building sheepherder wagons.
Compact, efficient, often colorful, a sheepwagon was home on the range for a solitary sheepherder who might spend weeks with his flock.
The first sheepherder wagons began appearing in the 1880s in the big sheep-raising states of Wyoming, Montana, Idaho and Washington, where there were considerable numbers of Basque immigrants, an ethnic group often associated with sheepherding. Looking a bit like a Gypsy wagon, the sheepherder wagon had a rounded canvas roof, a wooden wagon painted green, and red-painted running gear. The Studebaker Brothers Manufacturing Co. produced hundreds of sheepwagons and later became an automobile manufacturer.
Some sheepwagon aficionados think of them as the first campers.
“They’re all alike, but they’re all a little bit different,” says Richter.
Inside, the wood-burning stove is on the right as you enter. The bed, on a platform, is in the rear. There’s the grub box, a pull-out table and quite a bit of storage space. A sheepherder wagon is cozy and reasonably comfy if you don’t mind a lack of bathroom facilities.
The sheepherder’s wagon was born of necessity.
“You always needed to have somebody with the sheep. Every ten days, you’d move the camp wagons and sheep to a different pasture. The border collie was indispensable to sheepherding,” Richter said.
“We always referred to a group of sheep as a ‘band.’ One band consisted of from 1,500 to 2,000 and required one herder and one or two dogs. In the evening, the herder would bring them to the camp and they would bed down around the wagon.
“At first light, the sheep were ready to head out, so the herder had to have had breakfast and be ready to move out with them. Some herders preferred winter herding to summer because they got more rest.”
Today, Richter is one of the few builders of sheepwagons. He builds other kinds of wagons, too: pony wagons; spring wagons, which are light wagons on springs that were as useful to farmers and ranchers in the 19th and early 20th centuries as pickup trucks are today; hitch, or delivery, wagons, built so the wheels can make sharp turns; and chuckwagons.
He’s built the “honeymoon model,” basically a sheepherder’s wagon that’s six inches longer and six inches wider than the standard sheepwagon, this to accommodate a queen-size bed. The standard wagon is 11 feet long, six and one-half feet wide.
He’s sold sheepwagons to sheep ranchers in California and Arizona who still employ herders to keep lonely vigils with their flocks.
One customer, a Missouri man who has a resort in the Ozarks, rents his Richter-built sheepwagon out to vacationers.
Richter has built seven sheepherder wagons since he started building them seven years ago.
He even gets inquiries from abroad. A man in Japan bought one of his red spring wagons to place in front of his business, apparently as an attention-getter.
“It’s obviously a hobby, not a business,” he says.
His hobby is not just emotionally rewarding. His sheepherder wagons sell for $9,700 to $11,000, depending on the size, type of woodstove and the running gear. His red spring wagons for $2,300. A chuckwagon will go for $4,760. The honeymooner sells for $9,700.
Richter builds at his own pace, working when he isn’t caring for a herd of 200 goats he’s fattening for market. He works in a spacious metal barn, using a 100-year-old sheepherder wagon, built by a Wyoming blacksmith, as a model. He uses number two white pine to build his sheepwagons, which have Dutch doors, a double bed, built-in benches and storage, and a wood- or coal-burning stove. Normally, he buys a stove to install, but he did build a stove for one of his sheepwagons out of quarter-inch steel. He sticks with the traditional colors of white, green and red.
Wife Nancy is proud of her husband’s skill.
“He’s always thinking of something to do. He has more ideas than you can imagine,” she says with a smile.
For further information on the herders and their wagons, read “Sheepwagon: Home on the Range,” by Nancy Weidel. Marvin Richter can be reached at 620-826-3602; or at firstname.lastname@example.org.
“I like to talk wagons,” he says.