Merino sheep shape Vermont economy and landscape

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(Host) As VPR explores Great Thoughts of Vermont, commentator Edith Hunter tells how one Vermonter’s entrepreneurship transformed early American agriculture and industry.

(Hunter) When Weathersfield makes it into a Vermont history book it is because of one man, Consul William Jarvis. His claim to fame was the early introduction of merino sheep into Vermont which eventuated in the sheep-raising craze of the first half of the nineteenth century.

Until the Napoleonic wars, merino sheep had been owned exclusively by royalty in Spain and Portugal, and their exportation had been forbidden. But the wars required an infusion of cash, and Jarvis was able to buy thousands of merinos which he exported to America.

William Jarvis was born in Boston, February 4, 1770, son of a patriot, Dr. Charles Jarvis. The best summary of his life is the epitaph that he himself wrote. It is carved on his stone along with a relief of a merino sheep in the Weathersfield Bow Cemetery. It reads in part: “He was Consul at Lisbon, and acting Charge d’Affaires of the United States from Portugal, from 1802 to 1811… under such able Presidents as Thomas Jefferson and James Madison… He was the first large importer from Spain, and distributor through the Union, of that useful animal, the merino, which greatly contributed to lay the foundation of the woolen manufacurers in this country.”

Upon his return from Portugal in 1811, he bought up much of the property in Weathersfield Bow, that section of Weathersfield that “bows” out into the Connecticut River. He arrived permanently in 1812 with his family, Dutch cattle, Portuguese swine, goats, donkeys, fine horses, a Spanish shepherd, and 400 merino sheep.

Very rapidly, Vermonters, and farmers in other states, discovered the worth of the heavy merino wool. By 1830 there were said to be five sheep for every person in Vermont and much of the forest land was denuded.

The sheep industry entailed the building of larger and larger barns, which meant more logging and an increase in the number of sawmills. The increased number of hides led to an increase in the number of tanneries. The huge volume of wool led to the building of more and larger woolen mills with “hands” leaving the farms to work in the mills.

Jarvis saw the necessity of high tariffs to keep the cheaper British wool from flooding the market and worked with Henry Clay and other national leaders to keep tariffs high. A suit made from merino wool was made in a Perkinsville mill and sent to Henry Clay.

By the mid-1840s the tariff battle was lost and the American wool market collapsed. But for 20 years William Jarvis and his merinos had shaped the Vermont economy and changed the landscape for generations.

This is Edith Hunter on the Center Road.

Writer and historian Edith Hunter lives in Weathersfield Center, Vermont.

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