Revisiting Isaac the sheep shearer

I just returned late last night from a trip which took in four Amish communities in Ohio. Over the roughly three-and-a-half days I spent in the state there was a lot of visiting with Amish and English friends and acquaintances. I just did a count and besides things like auctions, shops and church gatherings, I was able to squeeze in sixteen visits over that time.  Some just a few minutes, others hours long.

One of the unplanned but happy visits was with a Swartzentruber Amishman I had met briefly in 2007. “Isaac” shears sheep for a living as well as running an orchard.  While in Holmes County over the weekend I was staying with Amish friends of a higher church group, and for some reason Isaac came up. It happened that my friends knew him and knew where he lived, so we decided to drop by while in the area on Sunday.

Amish Sheep ShearerAfter knocking on one door of the twinned farmhouse, Isaac eventually emerged from behind another to join us on the front porch.  He invited us inside but we declined since there were already relatives there.  Isaac appeared glad to see us and seemed to recall our meeting on the Holmes County Trail late one summer evening 5 years previous.  The three of us had a good half-hour chat in the chilly air with traces of the still-unmelted snow on the lawn.

After our meeting in 2007 I wrote a short post about the impressive journey Isaac had made that day (I couldn’t believe it at the time).  He has to go some distance for some of his sheep-shearing clients.  You can read the post here.

The funny part of this story is that Isaac has also read this post. When I brought up meeting on the Trail he immediately said something about me doing a “write-up”. I wasn’t sure what he meant until I recalled writing this about 1,000 posts ago.

Someone with computer access Isaac knows apparently read it and recognized him, then printed out a copy. I guess the moral of the story is that news gets down the grapevine in unexpected ways!

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    11 Comments

    1. Tom

      Great Post

      Erik, This is a great story and post. You are so right it is amazing how news can travel and get to people in unexpected ways. I have to go back and read your post about Isaac. I have been coming to Amish America for almost 2 years. I rarely comment but I love reading your posts and the comments. I have learned so much from this site that adds to what I have learned from your book and many others. Thank you for your stories and post I really enjoy this site and it has become a daily ritial to come here every morning.

      1. Thank you Tom, I am glad you commented! This was a fun visit and one of the more memorable ones of the trip. I think Isaac got a kick out of it as well.

    2. Carolyn

      Thanks for posting this. I went back & read the original post and enjoyed it. I hope to visit Holmes County soon but it’s a little far from my home in Texas.

    3. You made him famous..! I wonder if that became a boost for his business? Never know who might be reading.. Fun story thanks for sharing

      1. Next time I visit in a few months I’m going to ask him if he’s read this post. We’ll see how fast the English internet to traditional Amish grapevine works.

    4. Tom in Kentucky

      Well I guess we finally have the answer. Isaac does indeed have a house.

    5. Alice Mary

      Not sheepish!

      What a neat tale! I read the older post, as well. I can only wonder what I’d be thinking of (and not fall asleep and fall out of the buggy!) on such a long haul as Isaac’s, plodding down the road to his shearing “appointments”. I also wonder if he has soft, smooth skin from all the lanolin in the wool he shears (no, honest, that’s what I’ve heard!). I use “Wool Wax Cream” on my dry heels—now I’ll think of Isaac when I use it.

      There was a sheep farm in my area, quite possibly on the very land my library stands on now (the remainder of a small dairy farm is still across the street). I remember when we moved out here 24 years ago (before more housing developments went up),driving down that road and noticing a flock of sheep & thinking how cool it was! Heck, having grown up in Chicago, I’ve always been amazed by farm animals (or anything other than pigeons, squirrels & rats), so living so close to them was a real treat (silly as that may sound)!

      Say “hello” to Isaac for us, Erik. I’ll be very interested in hearing about if these posts made it through that “grapevine”!

      Alice Mary

    6. Caroline

      Goog Story

      I’m pleased you had such a nice trip. I had read that article and enjoyed this one as well. I hadn’t thought of Amish as sheep shearers, but why not. Good article. Thank you.

    7. Caroline

      Soooo sorry I can’t type today. I meant “Good article”

    8. Todd Macfarlane

      Amish Sheep Shearers

      Erik, I have now read both of these posts about Isaac, so I wanted to reach out, and see what, if any, information you might be able to offer on this subject. I have long-standing (30 years) interest in, and some background with the Amish, with a genuine new-found interest.

      This is a long story, which I will try to summarize in a nutshell, but I just returned from spending a week in Holmes County, where I was specifically hunting for sheep shearers. I found some, but never heard about Issac. The two Swartzentruber shearers that I learned about were Sam E. Miller and Peter Willie.

      My preference would have been to send an email about all this. But since your site says you’re twice as likely to respond to a comment, that’s what I’m doing. Given your obvious expertise about the Amish, I would really like to pick your brain about a few things.

      Here’s the nutshell version: I am an aspiring commercial sheep shearing contractor in the West, where there are hundreds of thousands of sheep on big sheep ranches that need to be sheared, but getting shearers has become a real challenge, and we are almost completely dependent upon seasonal foreign labor, primarily from Uruguay and Peru, as well as Australia, New Zealand, and the British Isles.

      But bringing in seasonal foreign labor has become an expensive, regulatory nightmare, so I started thinking about where in this country could we possibly find a seasonal domestic labor source of people with an agricultural orientation and genuine work ethic, who are not afraid of (and look down their nose at) physical labor. I thought of the Amish, and decided to explore that prospect.

      Through some fairly extensive Internet research, and then just starting to reach out to people, I learned that eastern Ohio is a place where more and more Amish are embracing sheep production, and there is a very strong market in Mt. Hope. So that is where I started, and learned a lot in the process, but my inquiry is far from over.

      From a big picture perspective, given the realities of sheep ranching in the West, and growing concerns about perpetuation (there are many aging ranchers with no one in the family who wants to take over the operation), given the labor intensity of sheep ranching, and the fact that the Amish seem to have the opposite challenge (big families, rapidly growing population, etc.), and are getting overcrowded in some areas, it seems like there might be some interesting long-term and big picture opportunities.

      But the immediate need is for seasonal, sheep shearers and wool handlers, and a work force that could be developed in that direction. What I learned, however, is that this is a very competitive proposition, with Amish labor in very high demand (especially around Holmes County). So I’m trying to figure out where else Amish sheep production is on the rise and/or the economy is not quite as booming as it is in Eastern Ohio.

      One thing I did learn is that a lot of young Amish men are interested in the idea of having a chance to spend some time looking around the West, and maybe do some hunting, etc., and shearing sheep might be a good way to do that.

      Thoughts?

      Thanks.

      1. Todd, interesting to hear what you’re doing. Some quick thoughts:

        1) Isaac was actually just a pseudonym I gave the man (I put his name in quotes, though maybe it wasn’t clear from that) so it’s possible you heard about the same person.

        2) Some Amish are drawn to Western states; younger Amish may be more inclined to live there temporarily when not tied to a family, though I don’t know if this is a trade which young people frequently learn, and if it’s a job which requires a lot of experience to do well (I’m assuming you know the answer to at least one of those). If so finding temporary help might be easier with someone from the youth/early-20s crowd. Could the trade be taught relatively quickly to a willing person?

        3) Amish families have done migrant work in the past, there is some history of this in Texas for example. But it’s not that common in recent history (this relates to point #2).

        4) The community in Kalona, Iowa is one that I recall having a number of sheep farmers. I was there for several days visiting the entire community pretty thoroughly, but that was about 15 years ago. I seem to recall reading that sheep are still a part of the agricultural layout there.

        5) Have you investigated any of the Western communities, say in Colorado or Montana?