Life on a North Dakota Sheep Ranch by Nellie Fleak

This article was written by my great-grandma at age 15 and appeared in The Guthrian on October 14, 1915.  Nelle, whom I happen to be named after,  was born in Guthrie County.  Her family raised sheep, and migrated out west to places like Idaho, Colorado, and North Dakota to graze them.  When her father died unexpectedly in 1910, Nelle and her family returned to Guthrie Center.

Twelve or thirteen years ago, Morton County, ND was not thickly settled as now.  Our ranch was thirteen miles from the nearest town and forty miles from Glen Ullin, the nearest railroad town.  From this point we had to haul our supplies in wagons, taking three days for the trip and camping out on the road near Heart River, which was about midway between the ranch and town.

The ranch is situated in a valley between three small hills and one large one, while a rough road made rutty by heavy rains, winds down over the hill and on toward the next town.  (This consists of an old barn, a few old musty hay stacks and a sheep shed which we built of stone from the ranch.)  From the house a long grassy yard sloped gently down to a creek called Hidden Timber, from the scarcity of trees along its banks.

For the first we had to get our mail from Glen Ullin, and we got it only three times during the first winter because of blizzards and heavy snow.  So the next year we had a Post Office established at our ranch and Mamma was Post Mistress.  It was named for us and a little town built there since, it bears the name of Fleak. [Fleak was established on March 30, 1904.  It is now part of New Leipzig and Grant County.  It was located in southwestern North Dakota, near Standing Rock Reservation.]  The neighbors came from twelve or fourteen miles to get their mail from our Post Office.  It was carried from Glen Ullin to Leipzig, and from there a Russian name Utreke brought the mail to us, making the trip three times a week.


Nellie’s Parents – Jennie & Link Fleak

We kept all the way from fifteen hundred to four thousand head of sheep.  In the summer they were taken out where they could find plenty good grass and left there with a man or the boys, to herd them.

Sometimes they would be several miles from home.  In the winter time we kept them near home and fed them hay.  One year we used a snow plow to clean the snow away so the sheep could get the grass under it.

In May came “lambing time.”  We marked each ewe and her lamb with paint, making the same mark on mother and lamb, so that if a lamb should stray away, we would know immediately which was its mother.

We put the ewes and their little lambs in small bunches until the lambs were three days old, then they were put with the larger bunch again.  Sometimes a mother would die, then we would raise the lamb as a pet.  Others would not own their lambs and would be put in a close pen so the mother could not run away from her little one.

We sheared the sheep in June and usually had to have extra help for this.  Sometimes the shears would cut the sheep instead of the wool, and if an artery was cut, the shearer had to take a darning needle and white thread and sew it together. As each sheep was sheared its wool was tied in a bundle.

These bundles were then thrown in a large sack, about the length of a wagon box.  A man stood in the sack and tramped them down tight so that sometimes it contained as much as six hundred to eight hundred pounds of wool.  The sacks were then loaded on hayracks with four-horse teams hitched on to them and hauled to Glen Ullin, and sold to the wool buyers, who gave us twenty-three cents a pound for it.  One year we shipped to the Lonsdale Woolen Mills, at Dale City, and they paid twenty-five cents for it.

After the sheep were all sheared and the wool taken to market, they were driven over to the neighbors, three miles away where there was a “dipping tank” full of disinfecting solution.  They were driven into a shute and pushed off into the dip.  Then they scrambled out on the opposite side of the tank.  After they were dipped they were taken out to graze, ten or twelve miles from home.  The herder “Old August” took a camp wagon along, containing a stove table, bed and provisions.  Every few days some of us took bread, meat, milk, canned goods, etc. to him.

Many times prairie fires are started from different causes, such as people dropping matches and cigarette stumps and camp fires.  One day a lady, Mrs. Whitney, was burning a fire guard around her place and lost control of it.  It started straight for our camp, Charley was near the house with a team and wagon looking after a small bunch of sheep.  He saw the fire as it was going towards the sheep, he unhitched one of the horses and jumped on its back and rode up to the fire as fast as he could.  But as Papa was at the house and saw it about the same time, he of course got there first.  The guy ropes which held the wagon from blowing over were afire, but it took only a minute to put these out.

August, the old Dutchman, had left his old boots off that day and as they were in the wagon, he was badly frightened for fear they would burn up.  He just stood and looked at the wall of fire roll up to the wagon and toward the sheep, never making a move to get the sheep out of the path of the fire and onto the path left burnt black, but just kept shouting “Mine boots!  Mine boots! Mine boots!”  Papa and Charley, who arrived there later, succeeded in getting the sheep on the burnt space before the fire caught them.  The fire afterwards was put out.

After being herded for five months, the sheep were brought back to the ranch.  The fat ones were driven to Glen Ullin and shipped to Chicago and the stock sheep were wintered on the ranch.

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