Laura Dean Bennett
Pocahontas County has been known as a big wool producing county for over a hundred years, and for many years, it was the biggest wool-producing county in the state.
West Virginia Shepherd’s Federation in Hinton was organized in 1989 by lamb and wool producers partnering with WVU Extension agents as a non-profit agricultural marketing association. It has, for many years now, been organizing the annual wool pool.
Before that, the West Virginia Marketing Association, out of Buckhannon handled the wool pools.
Back in the day, our wool pools, typically held each year in June, were the largest in West Virginia, sometimes delivering more than 50,000 pounds of clear medium wool to market per year.
Sometimes it took two crews to grade the wool and bale it, and tractor trailers to carry it to the two wool pool locations – Marlinton and Durbin.
The quality of Pocahontas County wool was consistently high and thus it commanded some of the best prices in the region.
For many years the Pocahontas County wool pool graded and baled wool in Marlinton at Marlinton Motor Sales, now referred to as the old Ford garage.
Because of the distance required to travel by so many sheep farmers in the upper end of the county, there was also a wool pool held in Durbin for many years.
The wool was graded and baled near the railroad tracks so that it could be conveniently loaded and shipped out of the county on rail cars.
In a 1961 article in The Pocahontas Times, it was reported that only Russell County, Virginia’s wool pool sold higher than ours – 62.03 cents per pound versus 61.07 cents per pound for that’s year’s Pocahontas County wool.
In 1964, Pocahontas County topped the state sale in Clarksburg – 60,000 pounds, sold for 75.33 cents per pound.
That was the highest price paid for wool, not only West Virginia, but also Virginia and North Carolina. It was bought by the Fred Whittaker Company of Philadelphia, which had regularly been buying the county’s wool for many years and obviously knew good wool when they saw it.
“Pocahontas County certainly has developed a reputation for delivering top quality wool,” said then Pocahontas County Extension Agent Walter E. Jett.
The Pocahontas Times reported on June 17, 1965 that the wool from that year’s Pocahontas County Wool Pool was again bought by the Fred Whittaker Company. The total paid for that year’s lot was $43,361.71.
The lot contained 62,155 pounds of wool from 172 sheep farmers.
Of that, 61,189 was graded as clear medium and sold for 67.25 cents per pound, net to the farmer.
The remainder was graded as 427 pounds of light burry, 189 pounds of reject wool and 350 pounds of tags. (Burry wool indicates that it contains burrs and “tags” indicates heavy dung locks.)
At the time, Jett said, “Wool is the first payday for many of our farmers, and growing top quality wool is a year-round job.”
“And pastures and lots frequented by sheep should be kept free of burrs,” he added.
The local wool again topped the market at 1967’s Annual State Wool Sale, and it was purchased that year by the National Worsted Wool Company out of Jamestown, New York.
At the Annual State Wool Sale in Elkins in 1970, where five wool firms were bidding, the Pocahontas County Wool Pool brought the highest price, at 53.61 cents per pound. The Pocahontas County wool was purchased by Wellman Industries of Johnsonville, South Carolina.
By 1979, the wool business was still going gangbusters, Pocahontas County had 58,000 pounds gathered at that year’s wool pool from 200 consigners.
The wool market has been greatly eroded in recent years, and this is a particularly bad year, according to Ron Fletcher, treasurer and wool pool manager of the West Virginia Shepherd’s Federation.
“We still have strong pools at Marlinton, Lewisburg and Petersburg,” said Joe Aucremanne, President of the Shepherd’s Federation. “So we’re concentrating on them.”
Unfortunately, it seems as though the depressed wool market, coupled with the increased predation by coyotes is taking its toll on the county’s wool producers.
According to Pocahontas County Extension Agent, Greg Hamons, although the county is still at the top of the list of state wool producers, there are now fewer than 100 sheep farmers here.