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A historian’s boyhood among the woolies

A memoir by Richard Etulain, Oregon historian of the West, spins a yarn about growing up on a Basque sheep ranch in eastern Washington.

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Historian Richard Etulain (Photo: Brian Libby) and his memoir of life on a sheep ranch.

Dr. Richard Etulain’s book Boyhood Among the Woolies (Washington State University Press: Basalt Books) is a family account of living on a sheepherding ranch in eastern Washington in the early and middle decades of the 20th century.

In Among the Woolies Etulain, a long-time history professor and author of more than sixty books who lives in the Portland suburb of Clackamas, gives a lively and rare view of day-to-day life on a sheepherding ranch. In a recent conversation he wanted to emphasize his Basque roots, the view of the eastern Washington landscape, and sheep ranching in the American West. Richard’s book details the endless chores, relationships with the hired staff, pranks among the brothers, favorite dogs, schooling, and church on the ranch and in the town of Ritzville.

Etulain’s father, Sebastian, came to the United States in 1921 with $250 borrowed from his older brother Juan, and followed family members (“chain migration”) who came from the northern Spanish Basque province of Navarra to the United States and settled near Yakima, Washington.

Etulain Ranch, 20 miles from Ritzville, Washington. Photo courtesy of Richard Etulain.

Soon after, Sebastian started sheepherding for his Uncle Martin, who was not an easy person to work for. “The dogs were good company,” Sebastian remarked, “but Uncle Martin was not.”

In 1929, Sebastian left his herding and joined Juan in a sheep-herding partnership, renting the McCall Ranch in eastern Adams County. In 1932, things changed dramatically when Sebastian’s Uncle Martin died. Uncle Martin willed $150,000-$200,000 to his brother Fermin. Furthermore, Etulain’s father got a special deal from Martin’s lawyer, who sold the ewes to him for $1 a head, an extremely low price. In addition, the bank took over the McCall ranch because the owner could not keep up the land payment because of the Depression. The bank then sold the McCall Ranch to Sebastian and Juan on a fifteen-year plan.

By 1936, Sebastian and his brother Juan had decided to split up. Juan bought a ranch in Sunnyside, Washington; Sebastian bought the McCall Ranch; and each quickly divided up the sheep herd. Through his hard work and frugal ways, Sebastian completely paid off his ranch in four years. Thus began a lengthy career for Sebastian as a sheep owner on a ranch near Ritzville. Richard uses two quotes attributed to his dad to account for his success as a sheep ranch owner: “Get ‘er Done;” and “Outwork ‘em.” Richard believes that what accounted for his father’s success was a combination of good luck and strenuous efforts.

The sheepherding life in Washington State. Photo courtesy of Northwest Public Broadcasting.

In 1936, Sebastian met and married Mary Lou Gillard Foster. Two sons were born in quick succession: Dan (1937) and Dick (1938). In addition, Richard’s mother came into the marriage with a son from an earlier marriage, Ken. Mary Lou, Etulain writes, brought her gifts to the family in the following way: “The family canonized Mom as a peacemaker and encourager. … Mom’s patience and people skills won out.”

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Richard mentions that the sheepherding life was hard on everyone in the family: “Dad was so demanding, so bent on success, so pushed to move beyond others, he had little time to be a husband and father.” 

In contrast, Richard’s mother had a special place in her heart for education, and encouraged her sons to aspire to a life outside of the sheep ranch. “Mom showed her social ambitions for her family in several ways,” he said. “Education topped the list. Even before we were teenagers, Mom would point out a person in town or at church and say, ‘Well, he has an education,’ or ‘She is college-educated.’”

Shearing sheep in Washington State. Photo: Historylink.org

When they were not in school or completing chores, the three Etulain boys spent a lot of time playing tricks on each other, or “forgetting” to do certain things. Richard recalled a time when he and his brother Dan were in school, and the brother tickled his ear with a shoestring while Richard was reciting something in class.

In another incident, the boys were so intent on playing marbles one afternoon at school that they missed the school bus home. As a result, their mother had to drive to Ritzville to pick them up. When the boys returned home that evening, they were paddled by Dad to reinforce the rule about being punctual.

Another time, older brother Ken let Dan (when he was 10 years old) drive the pickup truck while the parents were in Spokane for the day. Dan dented the pickup and almost tore down a fence with his erratic driving. Fortunately the boys were good storytellers, and convinced their parents that “someone” had accidentally backed into their pickup that day. As Richard states, “For once, our stretchers seemed to satisfy the folks.”

As Dan and Richard grew older they realized they were not interested in ranching; they were more interested in things occurring in towns. Older brother Ken enjoyed ranching much more. “Our interests were different, however,” Richard remembers. “Dan loved toys, trinkets, and gadgets, while I became addicted to books. … But sports captured both of us.” Sebastian had hoped to see his sons become a veterinarian, county extension agent, or a banker.

After World War II, Sebastian Etulain saw that sheep ranching was permanently changing due to a lack of demand for lamb. He sold his ranch and bought a livestock ranch near Ellensburg, Washington, that he ran for several years. And Sebastian’s embrace of the evangelical faith was much different from the Basque roots that he had been born with: “Dad’s decision to become an evangelical and my conviction to traverse the same path separated us from Basque culture, since that cultural ethnic group moved in directions quite different from those of evangelicals.” The Etulains were all faithful members of the Ritzville Nazarene Church.

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Downton Ritzville, Washington. Photo: State of Washington.

When Richard decided to attend college, both he and Dan went to NW Nazarene College in Idaho. After their graduation, they decided to attend graduate school. Richard graduated from the doctoral program in history at the University of Oregon, then got a job at NW Nazarene College and eventually the University of New Mexico. Dan graduated with his doctoral degree from the University of Northern Colorado and worked at NW Nazarene College, eventually getting a job at Sheldon Jackson College in Alaska. Richard’s Dad ended up paying the college expenses for both brothers and (thanks to Richard’s mother’s gentle prodding) happily attending their graduations.

Boyhood Among the Woolies is a great read because it describes a first-person view of a sheepherding ranch of a bygone era. And despite a few organizational issues it is an important book, giving the reader a good understanding of the challenges and the good times involved in rural life in the American West during the earlier twentieth century.

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Photo Joe Cantrell

William C. Stack has been an educator for 37 years, teaching history during that time with a focus on U.S. history and world history. He also worked for the Pew Charitable Trust. Mr. Stack earned his undergraduate degree in history and a master’s degree from the University of Portland. He earned two fellowships to study American history at Oxford University and was a recipient of a Fulbright Teacher Exchange award. Mr. Stack has written several articles and a book about various aspects of American and Pacific Northwest history:Historical Photos of Oregon(2010),John Adams(2011),George Flavel(2012) andGlenn Jackson(2014).

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