GABEL | The selfless spirit of our state’s sheep men | Opinion


Rachel Gabel

Lamia, a village in Greece, bears resemblance to Meeker, or at least that’s how the story goes. A number of Greek immigrants followed the promise of a better life to America, leaving impoverished Greece behind. Many of them found work in the coal mines around Price, Utah, including a man named Regis Halandras. Halandras left Utah behind a flock of sheep owned by Paul Jensen, bound for Meeker in the early 1920s. Just a week after he walked to the surface and away from the mine, it exploded, killing 400 miners.

He herded the sheep east but when they reached Meeker, women with brooms and cowboys with ropes and rifles wouldn’t allow them through town. It was the height of the bloody grazing wars that pit cattlemen against sheep men, be they Greek, Basque or Hispanic. When the state militia arrived, Halandras turned the sheep south to winter permits at DeBeque, and he and his helper, Nick Svarnias, didn’t have any additional trouble for a few days. When a group of cowboys rode into their camp and told Halandras to get his sheep out of there, Halandras yelled in Greek to Svarnias, who was hidden in the rocks, rifle cocked, telling him to hold fire. He stood his ground, the cowboys eventually left, and the cattle owners themselves visited the camp the next day. The group spoke amicably, according to Dr. Andrew Guilliford’s telling of the tale in The Wooly West: Colorado’s Hidden History of Sheepscapes. They shared lamb chops and came to an agreement for the sheep to graze nearby. Halandras recalled years later, Guilliford wrote, “They sure did enjoy those lamb chops.”

Angelo Theos also left Lamia and then Utah’s coal mines for the sheep country around Meeker in the 1900s. According to his great grandson, Anthony, the country reminded him of the good sheep country of Greece, and he was certain that sheep would thrive there. Determined to find success, Theos saved his money, purchased a flock of sheep, and eventually sold them to return to Greece. The Greek government wouldn’t allow him to leave the country with his money so when he returned to the Meeker area, he did so without cash in his pocket. He did have, though, a reputation for paying his debts and working harder than the next man. He was able to leverage that, and eventually secured the land and leases that is now the Theos Swallow Fork Ranch. The Theos family herded sheep through Meeker last week, though they’re no longer turned away by angry villagers or the state militia.

The family’s Merino sheep, which are primarily white and produce both exceptionally high-quality wool and meat, trot in a group of several thousand behind a pickup truck. One or two herders are horseback, and another pickup with a trailer follows them. When they trotted through Meeker last week, the tapping of hooves, the quiet clang of bells around the neck of a few of the seasoned ewes, and the lowing of the sheep combined not into a cacophony, but rather a fast-paced tune that could hypnotize onlookers. It is truly history on the hoof.

Before the sheep were herded through Meeker, they were trailed from the Utah line, where they spent the winter in the desert on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) land the family leases. The wooly ewes move down curvy highways like a cloudy river to the Theos’ shearing shed near Rangely. There, six shearers from the US, England and Peru methodically and expertly sheared each ewe over the course of five days. Each fleece is “thrown” by a rousey onto a skirting table. The thrown fleece billows out like a heavy jellyfish, landing expertly across the table. The wool is trimmed — called skirting — and sorted by class based on quality and type, before it is stored or sold.

The ewes lamb at the Theos’ ranch beginning in May, which is where they’re headed now. From there, with lambs at their sides, they will move in two groups to forest allotments in the White River National Forest. The family has held the allotments for years, especially valuable because they border the ranch, making the move simple. The Theos family pays by the head for their use of the land, and in turn they maintain the water and fences and improvements. For their part, the sheep graze and keep the grasses healthy, also mitigating fire threats.

While they’re spending the summer in the forest, the lambs are gaining weight and the flock is watched by livestock guardian dogs and herders. The Theos family provides camper-like wagons, horses, feed, clothing, groceries, cell phones and other supplies to the herders who come from Peru to do this work, as not everyone is cut from the cloth that allows a man to do this job so well.

The ewes and lambs return to the ranch in September, the lambs are weaned and shipped, and the ewes trail back through Meeker in November through a backdrop of changing leaves and quaking Aspens. They stay briefly on some leased ground, are bred in December and return to the desert for the winter.

Seasonality, or the fact that the large majority of fed lambs are ready for slaughter at about the same time, has long complicated the marketing of lamb. Another major problem was access to processing. Most of the lamb in the United States, according to the American Lamb Board, is consumed on the coasts though the majority of lamb is raised and fed to slaughter weight in this region. Historically, lamb carcasses were shipped by refrigerated railcars to breakers, or butchers of sorts, further east who carved the carcasses into marketable cuts. Denver has a long history of meatpacking, including lamb, and was long home to Mountain States Rosen, one of only a handful of lamb processors in the country. When JBS purchased the facility and converted it to a cattle processing facility, it was a hard hit to the lamb industry.

The Rule, Raftopoulos, and Harper families, all lamb feeders in their own rights, stepped to the plate to invest in and build Colorado Lamb Processors in Brush, which opened in 2020. The facility is state of the art by any standards, and answers slaughter-capacity woes for many producers. It has also added jobs and revenue to the community, which is nearly entirely agricultural.

It is this spirit that flowed through the veins of Regis Halandras and Angelo Theos, and others like them who were willing to leave home to build legacies that live today. It is this spirit that drives the current generations of sheep men to care for forest allotments as they do their own ranches and the spirit that fortifies skilled shearers and herders, thousands of miles from their homes, to carry on their craft and make it an art. The same spirit drives Gus Halandras to promote lamb however he can, even in some version of ranching retirement. The secret, he said, is how his wife, Christine, prepares it. A meticulous hostess and cookbook author, she expertly cooks it slowly, adds lemon and spices, and never allows it to dry out. It is, he said, delicious enough to inspire two groups with different views to come to agreement.

Rachel Gabel writes about agriculture and rural issues. She is assistant editor of The Fence Post Magazine, the region’s preeminent agriculture publication. Gabel is a daughter of the state’s oil and gas industry and a member of one of the state’s 12,000 cattle-raising families, and she has authored children’s books used in hundreds of classrooms to teach students about agriculture.

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