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History of a Central Southern Idaho Sheepman
(Written by Max Marius Ollieu)
Theophile Joseph Ollieu rode a ship from France in 1909 at the age of 24 to Ellis Island in New York. He arrived with 11 cents in his pocket, knowing only French as a spoken language, having a sixth grade education and all the skills of a sheepherder. He did have a dream that America would provide far more opportunities than his small village beside the Reallon River in the southwest of the French Alps. The same river where his mother, Honorine Ollieu, interrupted a morning of harvesting grass hay in 1885 to give birth in the shade and fresh grass along the stream bank to her second son, Theophile Joseph. She returned the following day to continue cutting the tall grass for hay. Such was the life of a French peasant woman in 1885.
New York wasn’t a good fit for young Theo*, needless to say. Too many immigrants meant employers could take advantage of their workers with 12 hour shifts providing just one dollar in wages. Nevertheless, he stayed until the spring of 1910 before hitching rides west on railway cars across America. His meager savings were used to purchase beer in saloons for a nickel and more importantly then allowed access to the saloons food snacks.
Reno, Nevada was the first western destination where he chose to stay and work for a few months serving as a railroad crossing guard who stopped horse drawn wagons and early automobiles from being struck by oncoming trains. His other employment was gambling with house money to entice visitors to the tables. Neither of those positions was fulfilling so by autumn he again hitched a ride on a railroad car heading west. Boarding an open railroad car filled with coal turned out to be a poor choice considering the time of year and the fact that the train had to immediately begin its ascent of the Sierra Nevada Mountains via Donner Pass. History nearly repeated itself in that the Donner Party migrants froze to death trying to cross the Sierra Nevada Mountains during the winter of 1846/47 and in Theo’s case, being poorly clothed, riding on an open fully loaded coal car, slowly ascending the Mountains at night came very close to taking his life as well. In desperation, he dug into the coal, covered himself as best he could to slow his increasing hypothermia, and thankfully was still alive the following morning as the train reached Auburn, California northeast of Sacramento. Suffering from hypothermia and completely black from coal dust, he was barely able to extract himself and climb down from the railroad car.
After finding food, shelter, relief and regained strength, he proceeded to San Francisco where an enclave of French ex-patriots lived. Surprisingly, a woman he knew from France’s southwest Alps was living in San Francisco at the time. She and others informed Theo that sheepherders were needed in the Coalinga, California area northwest of Bakersfield. That was welcomed news to Theo. His limited skills did include herding sheep and goats from age six as well as horsemanship acumen. He left San Francisco for Coalinga shortly after hearing about the available herding positions. Thus, in 1910 in Coalinga, California began his western US range sheep producer life. Coalinga lies immediately on the east side of California’s Central Coastal Range providing beautiful rolling hills for sheep grazing during summer as well as San Joaquin Valley rangeland and farmland for cooler seasonal grazing.
Theo’s sheep herding work took him north through the San Joaquin Valley into the Sacramento Valley and Sierra Nevada Mountains in 1911. By the winter of 1911/12, he was herding in the Pyramid Lake area north of Reno, Nevada. Unfortunately, that winter of 1911/12 was particularly challenging there. Herders were only provided small tents and bedrolls when in that area of Nevada. One particularly cold stretch froze seven sheepherders to death. Theo, believing he would freeze to death, left his tent, to sleep amongst the sheep and survived. The decision saved his life and helped convince him that sheep camps (Conestoga type covered wagons) for sheepherders were a vast improvement. Such sheep camps were already being used by sheepherders in southern Idaho. Consequently, in large part because of that knowledge, he left Nevada for southern Idaho in the spring of 1912.
The Big Wood River Project which included construction of Magic Reservoir and its canals brought water from the Big Wood River to the Richfield Tract in 1910. Concurrently, the Idaho State Land Board made over 40,000 Tract acres of arable land available through the Carey Act. Availability of inexpensive land and water plus sheep herding positions convinced Theo to take up residence in Richfield, Idaho in 1912. Shortly thereafter, his younger brother, Marius August Ollieu, arrived by railroad following a long trip from France. A sheep owner for whom Theo worked encouraged him to acquire his own sheep, even loaning him the money to do so. By 1916 he had attained sufficient knowledge of the terrain, as well as adequate land and sheep numbers to commence his own range sheep operation.
At an elevation of 4,200 feet, winter snow levels usually forced sheep owners to move their animals out of the mountains, off of the range and even farmers fields by late November. Consequently, sufficient feed and water had to be available at the farm until the herd returned to public rangelands in late April. Theo’s sheep commenced lambing in early February, were herded to the open desert just two miles distant in April, shorn near Little Wood River at Pagari, then grazed east of the River for several weeks before heading north via a route east of Picabo then west of Carey and into the Little Wood River drainage. Muldoon and Baugh creeks which both drain into the Little Wood were popular early summer grazing choices. From Baugh Creek, the herd crossed into the headwaters of the East Fork of Big Wood River then west to the stock trail through Ketchum, crossing Trail Creek at the bridge nearest Big Wood River. The Trail Creek bridge provided a means to cross the creek as well as an opportunity for the sheep to be counted and in this case by tens as they crossed the bridge. On one occasion after the count, Theo believed the herd was 15 head short. He backtracked and indeed found his missing animals several miles back on the route they had recently used. Theo and Lane Mercantile owner and operator Mr. Lane (probably Pete Lane’s father) were contemporaries and good friends. Most trips north through Ketchum, Theo would stop for last minute supplies and a chat before proceeding.
North of Ketchum the herd grazed first in the hills east of the Big Wood River then later west of the River high up on the mountains. Proceeding northwest took them over Galena Summit and into the headwaters of the Salmon River. The original Galena Summit road was so steep that logs were dragged behind the wagons for extra braking on the descent. A trek west of the Salmon River through the Smile Creek drainage was taken, then passing Alturas and Red Fish Lakes before reaching Stanley, last outpost of civilization before heading farther north. Continuing northwest accessed forage both on the Sawtooth as well as the Challis National Forests before reaching Bull Trout Lake/Banner Summit area. Shortly thereafter, he accessed his Fir Creek Sheep Allotment located on the Boise National Forest which included the Fir Creek drainage as well as the west side of Cape Horn Mountain. Fir Creek drains into Bear Valley Creek forming part of the headwaters of the Middle Fork of the Salmon River.
As was true in much of the area grazed, predators (coyotes, mountain lions, and bears) caused losses. Coyotes were responsible for the most, with mountain lions and bears a distant second. As a consequence, the Winchester .30-30 carbine rifle was always within arms reach and loaded for protecting the herders as well as the herd. Outlaws wanting to steal sheep were always a concern with injury or death of a herder a possibility in skirmishes. On occasion, Shoshone Indians came into contact with the herders asking for a sheep for food. The herders found them trustworthy, of no threat, and obliged as requested.
Unfortunately, the Allotment was only available for grazing for a short six weeks before the herd would have to begin its return trip south, herded as usual and yes, passing through Ketchum on the way to gleaning farmers fields along the way in the Hailey and Bellevue areas as well as west of Gannett before passing over Timmerman Hill to public lands north of Richfield and then onto fields in the Richfield Tract.
Theo was a co-owner in the sheep corrals in Ketchum and shipped his fat lambs from there many years. Later he shipped the lambs from his Sheep Allotment on the Boise National Forest via large 3-tier sheep trucks. The Allotment corrals were constructed by Theo and his herders from long, slender lodgepole pine most of which had been killed during a large mountain pine beetle outbreak in the 1920s. Increasing deadfall and jackstrawing of lodgepole pine on the Allotment and resultant more difficult grazing possibilities were partly the reason Theo sold his range sheep in 1948.
It should be mentioned that the arrival of Theo’s younger brother Marius formed a bond that made the hard and often lonely life of sheep herding and ownership a much more viable situation. Theo thrived on new challenges and relationships serving as owner and front man. Marius was the true shepherd staying with the sheep through winter lambing, as well as spring, summer and fall grazing. He usually took a break just before lambing started for a few weeks however.
Both men had served in the French military before WWI and prior to coming to America. Theo’s horsemanship acumen was particularly valuable to the French military. Their need for useable horses was an assignment that fit Theo’s skills perfectly. As a result, he was able to stay in France during his military time and more importantly, not be reassigned to Algeria where being injured or killed in skirmishes with tribesmen were of considerable concern at that time. Marius served two years in the French infantry a few years after Theo’s service ended. Despite living in the US for several years before WWI, both were instructed by the French government to report back to France for active military duty during WWI. Neither chose to return to France and consequently were classified by the French government as deserters. In response, Theo and Marius applied for and received US citizenship. In 1918, they were instructed by the US government to report to San Francisco for pre-induction exams which they did just as WWI ended. They then returned to southern Idaho. Theo had sold his sheep before leaving for induction therefore needed to purchase other sheep to reassemble his herd and business. The sheep business was good during parts of the 1920s. One of those years, Theo received $25,000 for his lamb crop and still had his wool crop left to sell.
In 1931, the French government opened an amnesty period for ex-patriots they had classified as deserters to return to France for three months. Theo then was able to visit with his mother, Honorine for a few weeks before he had to return to the US. She died the following year (1932) which was also the year he married Donna Rosetta Flavel, who was raised less than 3 miles north of Theo’s farm northeast of Richfield.
It would also be good to note that because of being a sheep producer in the years prior to the Great Depression, both Theo as well as Marius had sufficient cash in the Richfield Bank to help it remain solvent during the depression. Bank manager, George Schwaner, told Theo and Marius that if they didn’t withdraw their money from the Richfield Bank, it wouldn’t fail. They left their money in and indeed the Bank didn’t fail.
Marius August Ollieu died in 1952 followed by older brother Theophile Joseph Ollieu in 1977. Both are buried in the Richfield Cemetery, as is Donna Rosetta Ollieu who died in 2004.
*Theo (short for Theophile) is used for consistency throughout the article although the term was really only used by his wife Donna and brother Marius. Others commonly used “Frenchy” or “Ole” instead of Ollieu. The author mostly referred to his father as “Pop”.
The author (son of Theophile Joseph Ollieu) thanks Janet (Flavel) Hiatt for her excellent help gathering documents, checking facts, photo preparation and text edits. What a valuable cousin she is!!!