White House Sheep

Henderson's New Horse Lawn Mower, 1898

The Henderson New Horse Lawn Mower, 1898

For most of human history grass was considered a crop, not a part of landscaping.  When grass grows long enough it is cut and dried to make hay, then stored to feed to livestock through the winter.  ​Formal lawns covered with short grass first appeared in France in the 1700s.  A manicured lawn was a privilege of the wealthy and a wanton display of excess - grass kept short couldn't be made into hay!

Grass was kept short with animals, especially sheep.  Sheep are ideal animals for lawn maintenance ... not because of their grass-eating abilities but because of their other end - their poop!  

Cow droppings are called "cow pies" because they are as big and deep as a pie.  Imagine sticking your foot into a chocolate cream pie - ewwwww!  Horse droppings are called "horse apples" because they are as round and big as an apple (but an "apple" that is soft and squishy if you step on it - yuck!).  But sheep droppings are small round pellets about the size of plump raisins.  They are small enough to fall between the blades of grass, so you don't see the poop in your lawn, and the pellets are usually dry enough that they don't stick to your shoes so you can stroll through a lawn that is grazed by sheep.

Sheep on the White House South Lawn, 1918

Sheep on the White House South Lawn, 1918

Animals graze unevenly, so a well manicured lawn required human labor in addition to sheep grazing.  A scythe, sickle or shears were used to tidy up the grass by hand to keep early aristocratic lawns neat and even.  The first mechanical lawn mower was patented in 1830 in England, but early lawn mowers were heavy, horse-pulled pieces of machinery that had more in common with farming equipment than your modern lawn mower.  In the 1870s lighter, people-pushed mowers were developed, and as more Americans moved off the farm and into cities at the end of the century, grass was valued for its landscaping potential more than its hay value.

In 1807 Thomas Jefferson (President 1801-09) brought his large flock of sheep from Monticello to the White House.  The real purpose of Jefferson's sheep was so that Jefferson could continue a breeding program he had established before his presidency, but while there the Jefferson sheep also kept the White House lawn at bay. 

By the time Woodrow Wilson became president (1913-21) lawn mowing was routine and sheep had been long gone from the White House lawns, but that was soon to change . . .

During the election of 1912 the seeds for a war in Europe had been growing and would soon erupt into World War I.  Wilson had run on a pledge to keep the United States out of the war, but after war erupted in Europe in 1914 it was difficult to stay neutral, and the U.S. entered the war in 1917.  Wilson responded by using his own family as a model for a homefront family.  They observed gasless Sundays, meatless Mondays and wheatless Wednesdays to set an example for the rationing effort.  

White House Sheep

White House Sheep Grazing

Wilson had a grounds crew to maintain the White House lawn.  In 1918 Wilson bought a flock of18 Shropshire Downs sheep to graze on the White House lawn.  This eliminated the need for the grounds crew, and they were released so they could enlist and join the war.  The release of the ground crew saved money, but the sheep also raised money with the sale of their wool. 

Shropshire Downs are a breed that had been established in the 1850s by crossbreeding English breeds to produce a stocky, meaty sheep without horns.  They were extremely popular by the 1880s and continued their popularity through the 1940s.   Shropshires are a meat breed, and their wool is "medium wool" (the highest quality wool comes from "fine wool" breeds), but they are one of the heaviest wool producers of the medium wool breeds.  Known for wool from their head to their toes, the sheep are big and their wool is dense (a lot of hairs growing per every square inch of skin).  The wool is only a medium quality, but they produce a lot of it!

White House Sheep Wool

Wool from the White House Sheep

Shropshire Sheep, from 1910 catalog

Shropshire Sheep,

from a 1910 Catalog

Shropshire Sheep today

Shropshire Sheep today

And who wouldn't want wool from the official White House sheep?  Wilson had the sheep sheared and sold the best fleeces, giving the money to the American Red Cross.  At their 1918 shearing $30,000 was raised, and the 1919 shearing $52,823 was collected.  The average price was $1,000 per pound of raw wool.  The price of raw wool today ranges from about $10 to $20 per pound.

The highest price was for Old Ike's fleece, an amazing $10,000 per pound!  Old Ike was the herd's ram, and the fact that the herd was purchased at 18 sheep but had grown to 48 sheep in just two years shows that Old Ike did his duty well!

But despite his success with the ladies, he was not so nice to people. A 1920 newspaper account says Ike was "forceful and strategic," routinely charging the White House staff.  But all rams "ram" (duh!) and can be quite aggressive, and one has to wonder if Ike was more aggressive than the average ram or just had the misfortune of living among city-folk who were not used to sheep. 

Despite his ramming and the high price of his wool, Ike's real claim to fame was his tobacco eating.  Men were cautioned to keep tabs on their cigars or Ike would chew on them, and he was regularly fed cigar stubs.  This sounds horrible, but really tobacco is nothing more than dried leaves, so perhaps it didn't seem all that bad to a sheep. 

In 1920, after just two years on the White House lawn, the sheep were retired to a farm in Maryland.  The sheep were so well loved that Ike's death of old age in 1927 was national news.  In order to be mature enough to be the herd's sire Ike would have had to have been at least one year old in 1918, and was more likely older than that.  His obituary didn't state his age at death but he would have to be at least 10 years old.  Most sheep live between 10 and 12 years, so Old Ike had a good run!

A flock of sheep on the White House lawn was fun, plus it was a great way to contribute money to the war effort.  So are you inspired by Wilson's sheep enough to put a herd of sheep on your own lawn?  Nah . . .  I'd rather skip the work and just just get the yarn from my Local Yarn Store!

Happy Knitting! ... Scout

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