HAILEY – Under sunny skies Saturday, a crowd of children gathered around a pen to pet two sheep at Roberta McKercher Park in Hailey.
Gooding County 4-H members brought their sheep to showcase at a free folklife fair — part of the five-day Trailing of the Sheep Festival.
Gooding teenager Charlotte Brockman, 14, answered a variety of questions from children and adults alike, ranging from the sheep’s names to whether the animals sweat.
The purpose of the display: “Mainly to inform people about the sheep industry,” Charlotte said, because many people don’t know about it.
Hundreds of people came through the folklife fair. Some brought dogs on leashes, while others took pictures in front of cartoon cutouts of sheep.
Dozens of vendors sold items such as pottery, jewelry, decorations, artwork, clothing and wool products such as dryer balls.
The Trailing of the Sheep Festival kicked off Wednesday and continues through Sunday. The headlining event is noon Sunday: the migration of 1,500 sheep along Main Street in Ketchum to their winter pastures.
The festival draws huge crowds — about 26,000 people last year.
On Saturday, the schedule included the 2016 National Point Qualifying Sheepdog Trials at Quigley Canyon Field in Hailey, a lamb fest, quilt show, and classes covering topics such as simple wool dying and how to clean wool fleece.
It’s the 20th year for the festival. An anniversary celebration and sheepherder’s ball was slated for Saturday night at nexStage Theater in Ketchum.
“We’re kind of standing here looking back,” said Diane Peavey, who co-founded the festival with her husband, John Peavey.
Event spokeswoman Carol Waller said she hopes attendees come away with a better appreciation of where their food comes from and of the sheep industry.
The industry is “so much smaller than it used to be,” she said.
But some millennials are choosing to take over their family’s sheep operations, Waller said, or are getting into the business because of the lifestyle — the connection with family and the land.
Traditionally, multiple generations are living and working together, she said. “The bonds that are established are really, really special.”
Gooding resident Jaime Oneida has several generations of family members who were sheepherders, up until the 1970s. They ran sheep from outside of Shoshone up to Stanley.
Members of the Oneida family were at the folklife fair Saturday displaying three covered wagons. They got one of the wagons at a yard sale.
It wasn’t for sale, but it caught Oneida’s attention. “We said, ‘Hey, what are you going to do with that?’” He ended up getting it for free.
The family brings the covered wagons to a few events, including a Basque festival in Boise and the Trailing of the Sheep Festival.
“People like the character,” Oneida said, as he sat with his son Benito near the covered wagons. People are often interested in the history of sheepherders, he added.
Nearby, Carey resident Tyler Wilde and his father, Edric Wilde, waited for their sheep to arrive at the festival.
They were planning to have sheering demonstrations throughout the day and answer questions.
Most people sheer their sheep in the spring, Tyler Wilde said. The family has between 30 and 40 sheep at their farm. And the most they’ve ever had was 300.
Edric Wilde has been working with sheep for about 50 years, and Tyler grew up helping out. “It’s kind of tough to get away from it,” Tyler said.
Tyler said he hates how some people have become disillusioned about the way the farming culture works.
There are many benefits to sheering, he said, adding that leaving the wool on the sheep would be cruel. A sheep can grow 10 pounds of wool per year.
At one of the vendor booths, Dee Wilbur of Nampa was selling items such as fleece and handspun yarn.
She raises sheep at her family’s farm — RW Farms — and harvests the fiber and meat.
Sometimes, the public thinks sheep aren’t treated well, Wilbur said, but that’s not true. “We have a lot invested in these animals.”
Between talking with customers, Wilbur was hand-spinning wool roving into yarn. “It’s kind of fun to see the process from start to finish,” she said.
Wilbur’s daughter and granddaughters are also involved in the business. And at her booth, a poster board displayed pictures of her granddaughters showing sheep at a county fair.
Throughout the day at the folklife festival, musicians and dancers performed in colorful, intricate costumes. Many showcased the rich Basque heritage and culture.
Elliot Leahy, 7, of Bellevue was intently watching a dance as her grandmother, Betsy Leahy of Twin Falls, stood nearby.
“She enjoys it,” Betsy said. She came up to the Wood River Valley to spend time with her grandchildren. They were across the street at a soccer game and decided to come over to the folklife fair.
Besty hoped to see a sheep shearing demonstration.
One of the performing groups — made up of Polish highlanders — has been coming to the festival for 12 years.
“The group keeps a distinct identity to pass along to their children,” an announcer told the crowd.
A trio of string musicians played as seven couples performed, with the women’s skirts twirling as men led the steps. A crowd watched and applauded after each dance.