For nearly100 years, the tradition of a county-wide wool pool has seen multiple generations of sheep farmers collect their wool and bring it to market to be weighed and sold to be processed into wool cloth and yarn.
While most wool pools are held in the summertime, the first Marlinton wool pool in two years was held last week at the Pocahontas Producers Stockyard – on a fair winter’s day.
It was a long day – unloading and weighing the two-year crop of wool.
As farmers backed their trucks and trailers up to the stockyard, several Pocahontas County High School FFA members were there to pull the large bags of wool on to the scales. There, WVU Extension Service administrative assistant Connie Burns recorded the weight of each bag before it was sent on to the baler. At the baler, a crew removed the wool from the bags and sent it through the baling machine.
Among those working the baling machines was West Virginia Shepherds Federation president Joe Aucremanne and treasurer and wool pool manager Ron Fletcher, as well as Grant County extension agent Brad Smith.
During his time with the federation, Aucremanne said he has seen the market for wool go down and, unfortunately, it’s particularly bad this year.
“Thirty years ago, wool was bringing a dollar a pound,” he said. “Now, we’re lucky if we get thirty to forty cents a pound for it. Polyester fabrics have taken a lot of the wool market.”
Typically, a core sample of wool is sent to markets to verify the quality of the wool to get a price, but the federation has been working with a wool market in Jamestown, South Carolina, for so long, the verification isn’t necessary.
“We’ve been doing business with this market in Jamestown for so many years, that they trust our word on things,” Aucremanne said. “They gave us a fair bid for it and will be taking it on a good faith basis.”
All the Pocahontas County wool will join wool from pools in Petersburg and Ripley, and will be trucked to Jamestown, South Carolina, “We’ll be heading to Petersburg tonight when we leave Marlinton,” Fletcher said. “I like coming to Pocahontas County. I’ve got friends here that I only get to see during the wool pool. Of course, I’ve got friends all over the state like that.”
Fletcher has been baling wool for 50 years – ever since he was a teenager in high school. He’s traveled the country to attend shows and conventions.
“I’ve seen a lot of the U.S. because of sheep,” he said. “And this business has made friends for me all over the country, too.
“Sheep have been my whole life since I was young and if my wife had her way, I wouldn’t be doing it anymore – but I enjoy it,” he added.
Smith was available to lend a hand before the wool pool crew headed to his neck of the woods in Petersburg. A self-proclaimed part-time sheep specialist, Smith was concentrating on separating black wool from the white wool before placing it into the baler.
“We cannot ship any black wool – it won’t accept dye,” he explained. “Selling it to commercial, large lots like this, they can’t mix it in with white. If you have a market for it, it actually sells for a premium because it’s naturally dyed.”
Smith was in his element – despite the chill – and said, laughing, “If it’s anything to do with sheep, I’m there.”
Pocahontas County has been one of the largest producers of wool in the state. Back in the day, the wool was shipped out of the county by train and now it’s hauled in tractor trailers.
Aukerland said Texas is the biggest wool producer in the country, with about one million sheep. West Virginia, in comparison has between 30-and-40,000 sheep. A hundred years ago, it was closer to 300,000.
One reason West Virginia still has a large number of sheep is because of tradition. Children who grow up on farms tend to become farmers in the family business, which leads to generation after generation carrying on where their elders left off.
Larry Sharp, of Marlinton, is a prime example. He grew up on a sheep farm and when asked how long he’s been a sheep farmer he said, “I’m fifty-nine – ever since I was a baby.”
Sharp has close to 200 head of sheep, which he raises for meat. The money he earns from the wool is just a little extra spending money.
“I take them to New Holland [Pennsylvania] or Jeff Lawson – he buys slaughter lambs over at Churchville [Virginia],” Sharp said.
Sharp recalled wool pools from years past when there was so much wool, it was delivered to the pool in semi-trucks and a friend of his would unload it with a forklift.
“We’d load it by hand and those bags weighed two to three hundred pounds,” he said.
Another farmer to bring wool in to the stockyard married into the sheep farming business.
Rosemary McNabb’s husband, Rob, and his brother, Frosty, were raised on a sheep farm and followed in their mom’s, Pat’s, shoes.
“This goes clear back to where their mother was a young girl – nine years old,” McNabb said. “It’s been a long, very long tradition.
“We have Suffolk and Southdowns,” she continued. “Right now we have about 100.”
In its heyday, there were 200 to 225 head of sheep on the McNabb farm.
“Pat raised them – they shaved sheep,” she said. “Frosty started the Southdowns, and Rob had the Suffolks, and then when Frosty got married, Rob sort of just took over.”
Rob also provides shearing services to other sheep farmers in the county.
When shearing their own sheep and preparing to bag the wool, Rob isn’t a fan of Rosemary’s technique, but it gets the job done, nonetheless.
“He doesn’t like the way I pack the bags,” she said, laughing. “I don’t get into the bags. I take a stick or a piece of PBC piping and stuff it down in there all the way around the sides and it gets pretty downright stuffed.”
There are some sheep farmers who do get in the bags and stomp down the wool to pack it tight.
One of those farmers is Stella Callison, of Hillsboro. She has been in the sheep farming business for 45 years and carries on her father’s love of sheep.
At one time, Callison had 100 head of sheep, but now she is down to four ewes.
“I had my knee replaced last year,” she said, “and I sold my ewes except for two, and they had two ewe lambs, so I’m back in the business with four.”
Callison’s son, Mikey, has 60 head of sheep. She was delivering his wool as well as hers to the pool.
When Callison first started her sheep farming business, Rob McNabb sheared for her and she did her best to keep up with him – he sheared and she packed the wool bag.
“He could shear one in about three minutes, and I had to be there to roll the fleece up, twist it up with paper twine, stick it in the sack and stomp the sacks – put about four or five fleeces in – then get in the sack and stomp it, and get back out before he finished the next sheep.”
Callison still does the routine on shearing day, but has had to alter it over the years.
“I never did have a whole lot of upper body strength to get out of the sack,” she said. “Since I got my knee replaced, of course, I can’t climb into anything. So they just stick me in the sack and let me stomp and just throw [the fleece] in on my head, and I keep stomping.”
At the end of the day, the wool pool collected 30,000 pounds of wool which will be processed and weighed before being sent to market.
From beginning to end, the wool pool is a sight to see and is an enjoyable day that will add fond memories of farming in Pocahontas County.
The COVID-19 pandemic may have postponed the event, but it couldn’t keep the tradition from continuing this year.