Sheep shearing was a specialized operation
Hundreds of thousands of sheep were raised in Central Oregon prior to the turn of the 20th century. A major operation of the sheep industry was shearing. Shearing operations typically began in May. Shearers were specialized laborers who traveled in crews of from eight to 12. Each man could shear an average of 100 sheep a day.
The early shearers used hand shears that were sharpened on grindstones. The shear blades were so sharp that fleece could be cut by merely pushing the shears through the fleece. A typical shearer would earn 6 or 7 cents per head of sheep sheared.
Shearing plants were established at central locations. Once the sheep were sheared, the wool was packed into large canvas bags and sewn shut. The bags would then be loaded on wagons and shipped to the nearest rail line. After 1900, Shaniko became the world's largest wool shipping railhead. A constant flow of wagons was driven to Shaniko and then shipped by rail mostly to eastern markets.
It was a very busy time during shearing season. There were shearing crews, packing crews and freighters. Cook camps were set up to feed all of the laborers. It was very physically demanding work. Working the handle on the shears often became a painful procedure after several hundred sheep had been sheared. Usually, shearing would be done from sunup to sundown with little time for resting. Crews would move from one shearing plant to another once all of the sheep at one site were sheared.
Once shearing operations were completed, the sheep would usually be dipped in harsh chemicals to treat for scabies. Once that operation was completed, the sheep were moved to summer range.
Automated shears were not introduced until 1918. Once mechanized shearing was introduced, a single shearer could cut up to 200 sheep a day.
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