By Lynn Harlan
Sheepwagon Fever is a private group on Facebook with almost 23,000 members. It was started on a whim in February 2017 by a gentleman in Boise, Idaho. Ramon Ysursa (pronounced E-sur-sa) is of Basque origin and always admired sheepwagons and their history.
With about 15,000 Basques, Boise, Idaho is one of the largest concentrations of Basque folks living outside of Spain. Traditionally, Basque country lies in the Pyrenees Mountain Range straddling the border of France and Spain. Basque immigrants started coming to the Western states in the late 1800s to work in the mines and as sheepherders.
“The booming sheep industry for meat and wool promised jobs, and the 1869 transcontinental railroad enabled faster, safer and less expensive travel to the American West,” according to the Basque Museum and Cultural Center.
Generations later, Ramon’s father came to Boise, Idaho in 1953. He was sponsored by his uncle Benito who came in 1920. Benito started the Valencia boarding house and Ramon’s father and mother ran it starting around 1967.
Ramon did not grow up on a sheep ranch, but grew up listening to the men around the dinner table at the boarding house. Here is one of his stories from visiting Spain as a young man.
Cod Fish “A la Viscaina.” My mother used to prepare this, and it was delicious. One always had to be careful when eating it because of the occasional bone.
When I was young, it used to be easy to find whole salted cod in Boise, Idaho. We always soaked it in water for a couple of days and drained it adding fresh water.
I remember when I was visiting Spain, I always used to ride with my uncle Antonio. He had a truck and a business hauling livestock. We used to go to the many family farms, haul livestock to the auctions and sometimes we would haul hay.
Antonio hauled all types of livestock. I remember when we hauled livestock to the auction, the owner would always come with us because he wanted to witness the weigh-in because he didn’t want any funny business with his prized animals. I would always sit back and listen to the men talk and tell the many stories.
One day, we woke up very early and picked up a load of hay to haul. I, being the young one, did almost all of the work loading and unloading the hay.
Afterwards, it was always the custom for Antonio to go to town and meet up with his friends to have a few “chicitos” (small glasses of wine). It was always just a chance for Antonio to meet up with friends and talk before heading home for lunch.
That day, my uncle Jose Luis saw us entering a bar in Guernica, Spain. I think it was called Anaik.
There were three famous bars in Guernica across from the market place. They were called Biltoki, Anaik and I always forget the name of the third. I used to party at these bars in my youth.
My uncle Jose Luis was on vacation from work at the time.
Jose Luis said to us, “Why don’t I buy a cod fish and we can have the bar owner cook it for us and eat in the back room.”
The owner of the bar rinsed the whole salted cod as best he could to remove the salt from the cod and then fried it on a large grill with olive oil. We soon had a large gathering of friends enjoying the feast. Although the cod was salty, we had plenty of wine to wash it down with.
A gentleman joined us and asked Antonio if he could haul a load of straw.
Antonio said, “Let’s do it another day when we can start early.”
When we consumed the cod and the wine, it was time for everyone to head home to their wives and family.
Jose Luis, enjoying the camaraderie amongst friends, said, “Let’s go haul the straw.”
Antonio relented. We drove to an abandoned farmhouse in Guipuzcoa, Spain. Once again, I was the workhorse for the task.
The wine and the salted cod fish had begun to take their toll on me, and I was becoming extremely dehydrated. I asked the gentleman who we were working for if there was anything to drink. He sifted through some straw and produced some homemade wine.
I drank some and then proceeded to finish the work. When we finished loading the straw, the gentleman took us to a bar. He told me I could have anything I wanted to drink, it’s on him. I ordered a bottle of Coke and chugged it!
I then ordered five more bottles of Coke and chugged them. All the men were laughing.
They said, “I’ve never seen anyone drink Coke like that!”
I was able to visit with Ramon about his Facebook site and his stories. He was 22 at the time of this story, and it was 1989.
The Facebook site Sheepwagon Fever is full of great old photos, sheep people, stories, positive posts, sheep and of course, sheepwagons. Check it out!