Shepherds of the land
Published June 16, 2004
There was a time in Klamath County when sheep
ruled the range
By Lee Juillerat
Most people think of the Klamath Basin as
cattle country, and for good reason. Drive
around outside Klamath Falls, over to Merrill,
around Fort Klamath, between Canby and
Alturas, near Lakeview and thousands of cattle
are lazily grazing.
But Jack O'Connor
remembers when things were different, an era
when sheep dominated the range.
In the early 1900s it's estimated Lake County
had upwards of 350,000 sheep, while Klamath
County tallied another 160,000 and Modoc
County had upwards of 60,000. O'Connor's
family was part of the sheep industry, at one
time claiming more than 15,000 breeding ewes.
Kenneally looks over a pen of sheep at
the Spring Lake Ranch.
John O'Connor and his brother Jerry
bought the 160-acre Tom Martin Ranch
south of Klamath Falls at Spring Lake
after John returned in 1918 from the
trenches of France during World War I.
"Sheep were a good
business for a long time," says O'Connor, who
turns 79 later this month. "In the early days
you couldn't drive across the county without
seeing bands of sheep, some in pastures, some
being trailed to town from the ranges. Spring
and fall were the busiest times for trailing,
an early fall shipping fat lambs by rail -
Restaurants in San Francisco, along with Los
Angeles and Chicago, were the main buyers -
"There were thousands of sheep and they got
The O'Connor home at Spring
The O'Connors were a
major player in the sheep industry. At one
time the O'Connor Livestock Company had vast
holdings in Oregon and California. Oregon
Institute of Technology and the Merle West
Medical Center were built on former O'Connor
"From May to June you could see lambs playing
in the fields along the highway when the sun
was out. Sheep were a big industry in those
days. Several thousand people depended on
sheep for their livelihood, from employment to
selling the needs of the sheep industry,"
laments O'Connor. "Not many of us are alive
today to remember."
John D. O'Connor
The O'Connor story
began when Jack's father, John D., left County
Kerry, Ireland for Lake County in 1911 as a
Like others, John D. traveled to Lake County
to work for an established Irish sheepman,
Jackie Flynn. Flynn had come over years
earlier and earned his stake before developing
a thriving sheep business and recruiting young
Irishmen from his homeland.
A team of horses haul a
load in winter.
"I think the
relatives just kept bringing their relatives,"
says O'Connor. "The Irish pretty well
controlled Lake County."
John D. was drafted into the U.S. Army and
sent overseas to fight in the trenches of
France during World War I. After 18 months, he
returned in 1918. With his brother, Jerry, who
moved west from New York, they bought the
160-acre Tom Martin Ranch south of Klamath
Falls at Spring Lake.
"This was the seed
that later became O'Connor Livestock Company,"
John D. and Jerry were joined by a third
brother, Matt, from Ireland. Jerry was the
buyer, John D. the farmer and Matt the
sheepman. Jerry died in 1941. Matt retired in
1944 and returned to Ireland.
The brothers had a
small dairy and grew grain and spuds but, as
Jack explains, "The grain froze, the dairy
didn't produce enough and the spuds were not
steady, so the sheep won out. Sheep seemed to
be what they could do best."
The O'Connors added land and sheep, a cross of
Rambiollet and Columbia. During peak periods
they employed a 35-man crew. They built
Oregon's first pellet mill. In 1941, they
bought mill holdings along Lake Ewauna, which
they converted into a feed mill for sheep and
Each winter sheep
were loaded onto trains at, variously, Stukel,
Merrill and Chiloquin - and on trucks after
World War II - and transported to Maxwell,
Calif. Each spring sheep grazed in the Lava
Beds, and in summer moved to ranges near
Chiloquin and Lenz. The family added acreage,
eventually owning two home ranches, one at
Spring Lake, another near Lower Klamath Lake.
John D. married Violette Matney, who lived on
a nearby ranch, in 1920. Jack, who was born
June 25, 1925 at the Klamath Valley Hospital,
was the youngest of four children.
Jack married Theresa
Taucher of Maxwell, Calif. They had five
children. Theresa died in 1982 and O'Connor
remarried a year later. He and his wife,
Muriel, live in Klamath Falls.
He says the sheep's industry demise stemmed
from various factors, including passage of the
1934 Taylor Grazing Act, which eliminated
"tramp" sheepmen, who didn't own land, and the
passage of increasingly stringent predator
The loss of sheep,
he believes, is significant.
"The sheep industry has been given a wrong
image. It (grazing) groomed the forests so the
wildlife could use it and kept the fuels for
(forest) fires in check. Kept the brush from
getting too big for deer use. Grazing
converted a fire hazard into food and fiber,"
he insists. "Sheep were great weed controllers
along ditches, roads and unfarmed areas."
He also believes
sheep helped farmers. Instead of having to
burn stubble and leftover hay, sheep grazed
and cleaned those fields, and provided natural
"Animals weren't put on this land to be locked
up and looked at. They have a job to do,"
believes O'Connor, who calls sheep "groomers
of the forest."
Livestock Company "dwindled down " its sheep
operation, and increased the numbers of
cattle. By 1972 they had 2,600 sheep. In 1975,
with prices for wool and lamb declining
severely, sheep became a memory.
The ranch is now managed by O'Connor's son,
Tim, who runs about 800 head of Hereford cross
cattle near Lower Klamath Lake.
Phasing out of the sheep business wasn't
something he wanted to do, but O'Connor
believes it was inevitable. "We all have to
"They were stabilizers," O'Connor says of
sheep. "You went on the land and make food and
fiber out of water. I think they're a sacred
animal. One time a cattleman friend of mine
was giving me a hard time about sheep. I told
him I've never seen a picture of God holding a