Noted western writer Wallace Stegner once stated that the most fruitful years for memoirists were those up to age eleven. Author Richard W. Etulain thought about that statement for a long time before setting out to write his story, Boyhood Among the Woolies: Growing Up on a Basque Sheep Ranch, just released by Basalt Books. It covers his early youth on a sprawling sheep ranch twenty miles east of Ritzville and about seventy miles south of Spokane—eleven years that became the launching point for his later career as a western history professor.
Etulain notes that his experiences markedly differed from those of most young men from the surrounding farms and estates. About 100 miles to the east were the rich wheat ranches of the Palouse Country; to the west, smaller stock ranches and less fertile and more compact wheat ranches. Almost no sheepmen were in this area, save for the Escure brothers, his family’s next-door neighbors. “When I bragged about our 10,000-acre ranch (I didn’t mention that our best crop was rocks) to fellow Ritzville school students, they were convinced I was lying.”
Etulain’s memoir provides a glimpse of the annual patterns of life and activities on a sheep ranch. Lambing began in the coldest months of January and February, the sheep shearers arrived in April or early May, and the “trailing” to the mountains commenced in late May. Their four bands of sheep, totaling up to eight thousand ewes and lambs, grazed for about three months in the verdant mountains on or near the Idaho-Montana border. Meanwhile, the Etulain family resided in their St. Maries summer home. The boys swam, roamed the neighborhood, and enjoyed getting into trouble. In October, they returned to the sheep ranch and restarted the yearly routines.
“If the dry grazing lands dominated the ranch setting, the personalities of my Basque Dad and saintly Mother molded our family and home life. An immigrant from Spain, Dad was a driven, nonstop worker who tried, unsuccessfully, to convince his three rascal sons to become gung-ho ranchers. Instead, we preferred sports and ranch games. Mom was the peacemaker, helping her sons with schooling and generally encouraging our interests,” Etulain says. He recounts their experiences in the rural, one-room Lantz School with fewer than ten students, as well as later schools in Ritzville. Trips to town for Saturday shopping, music lessons (he dreaded them), the library (a favorite), and church on Sunday were invigorating breaks from the isolation. He also portrays the lives of their sheep herders and ranch workers, ranch animals, and delightful, frequent pranks. The final chapter traces what Etulain considers the major legacy of early sheep ranch years—his work ethic (from his Dad), interest in books (encouraged by his Mom and grandma), and fascination with history, especially the American West, Abraham Lincoln, and the Basques.