Thursday, May 8, 2014

Sheep Ranching in Govert, South Dakota, by Marie Kulisich

After writing about calving [Ain't She Sweet ... Calving in Harding County, South Dakota], I read the Nation's Center News with my pen, marking every mention of calving. Week after week my edition of the newspaper was so marked up, I could have connected the marks to fill in a picture of a calf. Then, a couple of editions ago, I saw the first mention of lambing along with the calving. Lambing continues now as the calving activity slows down. Marie Kulisich, the daughter of Mitch and Nikla Kulisich, told me about her experiences with lambing and sheep ranching in the 1930s and 1940s. Marie was born in Govert, South Dakota, and that is where she spent her childhood, attending school, and as a valued young ranch hand on the Kulisich Ranch. I am introducing Marie as a guest blogger.

SHEEP RANCHING IN GOVERT, SOUTH DAKOTA, by Guest Blogger, Marie Kulisich

I remember watching a program on TV about a veterinarian helping a cow give birth when she was having trouble, and I was reminded of how my dad did that with sheep, going in and turning the lamb so the ewe could birth her lamb easier. How did my dad know how to do that? Somehow whatever knowledge is needed comes to a sheep rancher intent on saving his sheep!

All the homesteaders in the Govert area first tried to farm, but the land was not good for farming. Then they tried cattle, but the grass was not good for cattle. Then they tried sheep. The sheep could eat the short grass that was close to the ground. The ranchers could make a better living from sheep, because they had two checks per year, one for each of two harvests: wool in the spring and the lambs in the fall. Cattle ranchers just had one check a year that being for the calves.

Lambing time was the first part of May, when the weather was warmer for those new babies. The lambs suckled soon after birth, and got by outside pretty well if it was dry. We did not have shed room for all the sheep and their lambs. We had "tepees" which were canvas, waterproof, small tent affairs with rods running through and around, with four sides that anchored into the ground and were big enough to cover a ewe and her new born lamb out on the prairie.

This tepee shelter kept the sheep and lambs dry if the day was cold and raining, and then you went out and brought the sheep and new lambs home before the day was over. Even today when I see rain and some snow in the air, I'm reminded of what a miserable day we'd have on the prairie at Govert herding sheep, maybe even a few first lambs arriving, and would have to use the little tepees to keep the newborns dry. The rest of the herd raced across the prairie, they too hated the wind!

Marie Kulisich on "Pony" carrying a new lamb in front of her.
I was often sent out to herd the "drop" bunch, the ewes that hadn't had their lambs yet. And one time I watched helplessly while an eagle swooped down across the draw from me, and took the new lamb up and away into the sky and its doom! I felt so bad!

My schoolmate, Evaline West, told me they once had a black ewe and she had black triplets. This is quite unusual and would make the news today. The sheep mother could only tend one lamb and the two other lambs became pets for Evaline and her sisters, Alice Mae and Shirley Jean. What was so cute were the names the girls gave their black lambs, something like Midnight and Lignite. They were ewes so were kept. We kept the black sheep as 'markers' within the herd. Like one black sheep for every 25 or 50 sheep so that when you brought the herd in at night you counted the black ones to get an estimate if you had them all.

The lambs without a sheep mother were called "bum lambs". Some ewes had twins but didn't have enough milk to feed two lambs, so one was taken away to be raised as a "bum" on a bottle. We used a pop bottle, with a store bought nipple and cow’s milk. I was supposed to feed the bums but my soft-hearted dad didn't want to wake me at five in the morning and would do it himself! I was fond of the bum lambs. They were my playmates, along with the dog, the cats, the saddle horse, and later that silly goat.

Dad had another option in dealing with bum lambs and that was to bond a bum lamb to a foster mother. If a ewe's lamb died, Dad would skin the dead lamb and tie the pelt on a bum lamb and shut the foster mother and foster lamb in together for a day or two until the ewe accepted the new baby. Sheep recognize their lambs by smell. Thus there was one more lamb for fall harvest! 

Then towards the end of May came "docking" time when lambs had their tails and testicles, called "wethers", cut off. Sheep were brought into the corral, and then my job was to catch the lambs and put them in the pen. Dad held the lamb in the pen and my brother, Tony, did the rest, not a pleasant job to be sure. I always held back the black lambs or black spotted ones until last, thinking I was giving them a reprieve.

Then next came shearing time, probably June. My memory of this was all the bleating as ewes and lambs were separated. The lambs were left outside the corral while ewes were run inside to pens by each shearer. When the shearing was done, the ewes were turned outside to find their bleating babies.

Outside the barn where the shearers were, a big scaffold was set up to hold the huge wool sacks. Tony was in the sack, tramping down the fleeces of wool to make a very tight sack. These sacks for wool were maybe 10 or 12 feet long, and they also had "ears", two on the bottom and two on top, so there was a way to handle them, loading on the truck at the ranch, and off again at the wool house at Newell.

Right after the sheep were sheared, we branded them. Our brand for the sheep was a "K". The branding tool - I think it was made from wood - was dipped in paint and then on the back of the sheep. Each rancher had a different color. I seem to remember that the Lale's brand was black, the Wests used green, and ours was red.

Then in September came the time to truck the lambs to market in Newell. Dad hired truckers to come in and haul lambs in the fall, and the big sacks of sheared wool in the spring, to Newell by truck. Leonard West was one of the truckers, no relation to Evaline. Leonard later married my sister, Ann. Frank Wald was one of the truckers when he was still living in Newell; later he moved to Govert.

Highway 79 was pretty good, but the couple of miles from the Govert store to the ranch was a country road, no more than a trail, no problem for the truckers as long as conditions were dry. The trail we used went across the Gee property to our place. Back then no one had much concern about trespassing, although you were expected to always shut gates, which was very important so the livestock didn't get out. The trucks used this trail across the Gee place when they came to get the lambs in the fall to ship to market, and the huge sacks of wool in the spring for the same reason. The truck had to ford the Moreau River as well, no bridges there for just one family!

I was amazed how my mother cooked for and served so many people when the truckers were out at the ranch, and that was when we lived in the granary after our house burned down, so we had little room. I think it was in the fall of 1937 when Leonard West and his brother, Bud, and Lee Post from Newell were there for supper. They were the truckers that came to haul the lamb crop to Newell for sale, and I'm sure a couple other men were there to help with the loading. What did my Mother feed all those people? I do realize it was a much simpler time then and I would guess she had a big roast or fried chicken, potatoes and gravy, homemade bread and butter, coffee and perhaps pie and that was it, but my mother served ample amounts and men like that! In the fall she might have had some garden stuff. And I am amazed at all the social interaction there was. These days were events!

We did not eat mutton or lamb. Mutton is not a very desirable meat, has a tallow taste and must be served very, very hot and spiced up like with rosemary. Besides, ewes produced the lambs and the wool which were our two cash crops per year and likewise, we would never kill a lamb.

We were grateful for the two incomes a year, the one in the spring for the wool and the other in the fall for the lambs. Many ranchers had a charge account at the Govert store and also at Brattons general store in Newell, and they paid up in spring when they sold the wool and in the fall when they sold the lambs. I'm more appreciative now of my parents and how they made it through the Depression when many of the ranchers were unable to pay even their real estate taxes. My parents were very conservative and carefully planned how to use the money from the wool and the lambs. Even during the Depression, we always had plenty to eat with our own milk, cream, homemade bread and butter, chickens and eggs, and Dad's garden.

My parents were both born in what is now Croatia. My dad had no ranching experience before he homesteaded near Govert. I'm so often going back in my thoughts to my dad's sheep raising operation, and wonder how did my dad know how to do all of this, how many sheep the land would feed, lambing time, docking time, shearing time, trucks coming in to haul out the big sacks of wool in the spring and when to have them come again in the fall to take out the lambs!

After the spring harvest of wool and the fall harvest of lambs, another year passes for the sheep rancher. As for me, I loved school and could hardly wait for school to start in the fall. Winter time for the rancher was slower, just herding sheep every day and battling the snowy, windy days of the winter ... 

... and listening to the wind blowing through the prairie grass. Marie and Kate

[Shared with gratitude to Marie Kulisich for recording her memories.]


  1. Dear Marie and Kate,

    “Mary had a little lamb, a little lamb, a little lamb….” I will never think about that familiar nursery rhyme in quite the same way now.

    Thanks for your interesting, informative, and well-written blog posting this week. Very fascinating to learn so much new about sheep ranching and “lambing”…about “tepee” shelters, about “marker” sheep, about “bum” lambs, about bonding a “bum” to a foster mother, about “docking” (Tony did indeed have an unpleasant job in that!), about shearing the wool and packing it, about paint “branding” and color codes (unlike the harsher way cattle branding is done), about the process of trucking the products to market, about eating mutton vs. lamb, and about ranch finances.

    You gave us so much new and interesting information this week. And, as always, the photograph added tremendously to the written portions. From week-to-week, we continue to learn (and see in the pictures) so much about Govert, its residents, and the way of life there. It’s all very, very interesting.

    Thanks for giving us such enjoyable and educational blog articles, as is this week’s entry. Added thanks to you Marie for graciously sharing your memories and experiences with us…that makes it extra special to read about.

  2. This is a wonderful website. I just discovered it and will check back regularly. You capture the people and the place so well. Thank you for doing this.

    Paula M Nelson

    1. Thank you, Paula. I appreciate your own contributions to the preservation of West River history.



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