Sheep Lovers Flock to Md. Festival

5/11/2013 7:00 AM
By By Rick Hemphill Maryland Correspondent

WEST FRIENDSHIP, Md. — The 40th Annual Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival was held over the May 4th weekend. More than just another agricultural sheep show, some 50,000 visitors, 250 vendors and a multitude of sheep breeders and fiber artists traveled from all over the United States to the Howard County Fairgrounds here. They mingled with over 1,000 sheep for educational seminars, competitive shows, food and just plain enjoyment.

The event lasted two days with presentations that ranged from the Peruvian Weavers of Lake Titicaca to sheepdog demonstrations. This festival has been sponsored by the Maryland Sheep Breeders Association for the last 40 years and celebrates all things sheep, from the auctions of sheep and sheep equipment to lamb cooking contests, sheep shearing, wool, yarn, knitting, spinning and competitive sheep shows.

“If you win it makes you feel so much better about the gas it takes to get here,” said a very proud Hilary Chapin, who traveled 11 hours from Milton, N.H. to show her Black Romney Ram. “Chapin 60 won champion Saturday morning,” Chapin said. “I brought 10 sheep with me and we have 70 more at home. You know you have too many sheep when they don’t get real names.”

The local 4-H club of West Friendship raffled off a spinning wheel as one of their annual fund raisers, which prompted swine raiser Laura Thomas and her sister Rachel to greet visitors to the event wearing their raffle signs.”This is my 5th year,” Laura said with a smile, “Our whole club is here.”

Denise Dixon was selling the 4H raffle tickets from a nearby tent. “My daughter is showing a rabbit and we live on a 97-acre farm right down the street,” she said. “This is my first year here and so far it is fabulous. It’s a lot of fun and we meet a lot of exciting people.”

“I like the fair and I have been doing this as long as it is old,” said Gwen Handler, the chairman of the event since 1992. “This is the 40th festival sponsored by the Maryland Sheep Growers Association,” she said. “We started this as an auction for the fleeces and then it grew and it grew and it grew. The show is predominantly for the wool breeds and it’s all about the fiber. We are admission free, but we now ask for a donation to help keep it free. People come from everywhere. We have over 800 fleeces for sale and sheep have come all the way from California.

“I have a vendor from Wales, UK. It is a happy handcrafted event.The festival is focused on sheep and wool and it’s a well-oiled machine because it’s still ours.”

Suzanne Hartman came to the festival from Georgetown, Texas and stands with her eyes fixed on a particular fleece. “Oh my gosh,” Suzanne said with a burst of enthusiasm that echoes from just about everyone in attendance. “We don’t see a lot of the long wool breeds in Texas because it is so warm down there so just seeing all the other breeds is great.

“I am a knitter, spinner, weaver and dyer so just to touch and feel all the different wools and textures and then dream and imagine about what they can be when you finish spinning them is what I’m here for. We have a lot of fun.”

“This is the best wool and sheep show that I know of,” said Bill Koeppel who with his wife Linda has been traveling from Ann Arbor, Michigan, to show their Border Leicester’s for the last 21 years. “We like to talk about our sheep and it gives us the opportunity to sell our sheep to good homes.

“This is a border Leicester,” Bill said as he and Linda trim their black sheep for the show. “This English long wool breed was developed primarily for wool for outer garments.You don’t make underwear out of it but you could make socks and sweaters. The people here can enjoy themselves.

“They can learn a lot by asking questions and the exhibiters want to talk about their sheep. The kids can learn about agriculture and that their food doesn’t come from the grocery store and their clothes don’t come from a department store. We will come to the Maryland sheep and wool festival until we have no more energy to bring sheep. It is really a family reunion,” Linda added.

Mike Janay and his wife Barbara have been raising their Cormos Sheep for 12 years just outside of Manassas, Va. “ “It is something we do together,” Mike said standing beside one of his ewes. “This is by far the best show on the east coast and I have been to others. Not only do you see a lot of different breeds you see a lot of different people. Some want to buy wool and some want to raise sheep.Our Cormos are out of Tasmania, and they have very long thin wool. They are very friendly and about 70 percent of the time they have twins and average about 12 pounds of fleece. That is better than a mutual fund.”

“I’ve been doing a lot of knitting and I just got into spinning,” said Barbara Jackson who was busily working a spinning wheel in her stocking feet. “So I came to buy some roving and perhaps a spinning wheel. I have only been spinning a couple of months. I live in suburban New Jersey and I belong to a knitting group with about 15-20 women who get together at the local supermarket to knit, crochet and spin. I came to see all the yarn and google at it.If you want hand spun and hand dyed yarn you have to come here.”

Kelly Smith-Anderson of Bruceton Mills, W. Va., has been coming to the festival for 20 years. “I market everything from breeding stock to finished knitted pieces,” Kelly said proudly as she swept back her hand to show the many different products behind her. “I am a spinner, knitter, have roving, wool and I eat lamb for food as well. I do all my own dyeing. This festival is a place that needs to be on everyone’s to-do list and you don’t want to miss it.”

This event is an experience wrapped in a festival that has evolved over the last 40 years to have extremely broad appeal. There is something for everyone with family tents, home arts, gardening and even a fine arts competition. Live music is provided by many artists throughout the two days of the event. “I played here the last two years with my mother,” said harpist Abigail Palmer. “I am a singer songwriter and I have been playing the harp for 14 years. It’s a great atmosphere and it is a good opportunity to play to the crowd.”

The festival takes up the entire fairgrounds and winds around several streets. Just across from the 4 H club is a large array of vegetable plants for sale. “I have been coming for 30 years,” said Fred Thorne who farms in Westminster, Md. with his wife Kris, and is proud of his home grown plants. “First I came as a spectator and I have been a vendor since the late 90s. I start all my plants in my basement and then I put them in the greenhouse. This is a big weekend for me.”

Don Pilson from Thurmont, Md., is part of the Maryland Sheep Breeder’s Association and serves on the festival committee. “We do the Maryland Grand Lamb Cook off and we do the main display here for the festival,” Don said. “We have a huge number of vendors and just about every breed of wool sheep you can think of here. This is a great learning experience for children as well as adults about what great resource wool is.”

“We came down to pick up a sheep,” said Logan Stoltman an 18-year-old from central New York. “Each year The Youth Conservationist Program gives a sheep scholarship for people who want to preserve heritage breeds of sheep. They have 12 breeds they give away each year so I was lucky enough to be one of the kids receiving one.”

Logan also bought his scholarship sheep a companion from Bill and Linda Koeppel.

“We have a great learning system here,” said Sharon Pilson, who stresses the benefits for children and the many great ways to prepare lamb. “Every recipe I can use beef for I can use lamb. The Lamb cook-off recipes are all available here. Our adult competitions in the Grand Lamb are for those16 and over. In our children’s competition our youngest cook was 11 years old and we had one boy who took second place.”

Lamb is also featured prominently among the many food vendors who offered lamb burgers, lamb gyros, lamb kabob’s and lamb most any way you can think to prepare it.

“There are over 40 different sheep breeds in the display,” Sharon added. “Each breed tries to share their benefits with the public about what makes their breed separate. It’s fun, educational and free for the entire family.”

Ingelis Ahlfeen sat quietly in the pen with her sheep. Her blonde hair was in sharp contrast to the grey and black sheep. “My parents decided to raise Gotland Sheep three years ago,” Ingelis said with a smile. “This is the second year we have brought our sheep to the show. We want to spread the knowledge of our new breed of sheep from Sweden. We breed them artificially. They are really fun loving and inquisitive with high quality fiber.” meet people and share our love of sheep.”

“We have been coming up here for 15 years and I just love it,” said Tami Russell of Polk County, N.C. in her lovely southern accent. “Usually we go home with an addition to our flock. Most of our purchases of sheep have been from the Sheep and Wool festival. I have Border Leicester’s and I like to interact with people to see all the things they have made.If there is anything anyone ever wanted to know about sheep or fiber they would find the answers here.”

Annece Perry sat under a purple tent attending a spinning contraption that whirls rapidly as she turns a small crank. She is winding wool to make a sweater. “My grandmother taught me to knit and that was the best gift she ever gave me,” Annece said with a voice that has a built in smile. “I started knitting with pencils when I was 6 and I have been knitting ever since for the last 54 years. I will be 60 years old this July. Knitting is very relaxing, like yoga.The Maryland Sheep and Wool Festival is mandatory for knitters. We must come every year. It is like the Super bowl of knitting.The best part of coming here is seeing like-minded people with creativity that love to knit and think like we do.”

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