Saturday night was the time for going to town. Everybody worked six days a week and most ranch employees were expected to put in seven days. But, Sunday was their only hope for a break. This made Saturday the majority choice and the business people in town directed their efforts towards accommodating that choice. Most of the stores stayed open until 9:00 on Saturday night and the two barbers, Shorty Thune and Jack Nott, worked as late as was necessary to get all of their customers trimmed up and shaved. There were times in mid-summer when that took until midnight. About the only business not having special Saturday hours was the bank. The Pool Hall saloon stepped in and filled that need quite satisfactorily. They had a big safe against the wall opposite the bar and seemed to always have enough cash in there to handle all the paychecks that came in with the ranch hands. Saturday night was also the time for visiting. People strolled up and down main street or sat in their parked cars along the street, looking for friends and neighbors to visit with. It was customary for the men to put on clean clothes for Saturday night in town but, if they felt like really dressing up, they put on a new pair of Levi blue jeans and a white shirt. A fellow usually had one pair of Levi’s that he kept just for dress-up until the time came that they had to be washed. Then, if he could afford a new pair, the washed pair would be put to every day use. The Levi’s were always bought at least two inches too long so that the bottoms could be turned up to form a white cuff.
Saturday night was not much different from any other for the town’s police force because the entire force was on patrol every night. The entire police force was Ovie Woolverton in his striped bib overalls, strolling the streets, checking for unlocked doors on closed businesses and ringing the curfew at 10:00 p.m. A rope-pulled bell on a tower by the town hall served as a curfew and fire alarm. The curfew hour was signaled by a slow, steady tolling of the bell while a rapid clanging called volunteer firemen to service. From time to time, some youngster would pump up his courage enough to commit the daring crime of sneaking to the tower and giving the rope a few pulls. And then, run for his life.
When the logging job ended, I was temporarily unemployed but it was sheep shearing time in Montana. I was called on to help with that job at the same sheep ranch I had worked at before. In those years, the shearing was done early in July and, depending on the weather, was often going full force on the fourth of July. Sheep were on the decline in Meagher County by this time but were still the major type of livestock. Only a few years earlier, they had been almost the exclusive type and wool had been shipped out of this area by the trainload. Today there are so few sheep in the area that you have to know where to go in order to see some. Evidence of the large bands of the past can still be seen in places where the thousands of hooves frequently passing over a ridge eroded the thin topsoil, leaving the ridge barren and bald.
The shearing operation was similar to the tagging that was described earlier except that each shearer caught his own sheep and, of course, clipped all of the wool from the sheep. At shearing time, crews of shearers traveled from ranch to ranch doing the shearing on contract. In earlier times it was all done with hand-operated clippers. By 1944 they were using electric powered clippers. Behind the shearers there would be someone going from shearer to shearer, gathering up each fleece as it came off, rolling it into a neat bundle and tying it together with paper twine. Then, he would toss the tied fleece up onto the bagging platform. The bagging platform was about seven feet high and was right behind the shearing floor. My job on this crew was that of wool tromper on this platform. In the center of the platform was a hole about three feet in diameter and there was a steel hoop just slightly larger than the hole. Another person, working on the ground, would have a couple of wool sacks laid out with the tops soaking in water and would hand one of them to me whenever I was ready for it. The top of the burlap sack would be put through the hoop and about six inches of it folded back down over the outside of the hoop. Then, the sack was lowered through the hole, making sure that the turned down top went through the hole all around. Because of the hoop being slightly larger than the hole, the sack was securely locked in place and the wet top helped to keep it from slipping. The bottom of the sack would clear the ground by ten or twelve inches. The tromper would begin by dropping three fleeces across the bottom of the sack and then two on each side of that row. He would then drop down into the sack and, with one foot in the middle and one against the wall of the sack, begin rolling the wool down around the outside. From there, it was simply a matter of reaching up and pulling fleeces down into the sack and tromping them in around the edge until the sack was full. At that time, I had no idea that I was performing a task very similar to the one that had given the family its name many generations ago. When the bag was full, the helper below would place a pole under it and lift it up so the hoop could be removed and the top sewed shut. Then it would be lowered to the ground and rolled away and a new bag put in place.
It was hot working right under the shed roof and down inside the wool sack. While not strenuous work, it was tiring but the pay was good. The shearers turned out a thousand or more fleeces a day and the tromper got two cents for each fleece. Twenty dollars for a day’s work doesn’t sound like much pay now but, at that time, seven dollars was considered good pay. Only the faster shearers made more than I did. The shearers invited me to join their crew, and the pay made it tempting, but the nomadic life didn’t appeal to me.
Instead, I went mowing hay the rest of the summer.
Excerpted from Wool Trompers by J. L. Fuller