STEVE LEWIS/Durango Herald
Bayfield was alive Saturday with activities honoring its past and present with its annual Heritage Days and Sheep Trailing festival.
The morning started early with an 8 a.m. 5K Fun Run/Walk hosted by Bayfield Boy Scout Troop 506 and Momentum Fitness.
By 9 a.m., bystanders were lining up along Buck Highway (County Road 521) at Mill Street to gawk, cheer and laugh as dogs and herders attempted to encourage a huge flock of many hundreds of sheep southbound.
The animals bleated, baaed and mehed their way down the road, taking several unplanned and unwanted detours ... and leaving reminders of their passing.
A more traditional parade then traversed Mill Street westbound past a crowd estimated to be larger than last year’s event, said Bayfield Town Manager Chris La May.
La May praised the organizations involved in producing the day’s events, especially the Pine River Valley Centennial Rotary.
“The Rotary (Club) has done the heavy lifting on this event,” La May said but added that many other organizations also had significant roles.
After the downtown parade, visitors converged on Joe Stephenson Park for entertainment, booths, sheep dog trials, a classic car display and other activities.
The focus on sheep was no accident and continued at the park.
Sheep have been part of the area’s agricultural heritage for many years, said Robert Naegle, president of the San Juan Wool Growers Association, which participated in the parade and had an educational booth at the park.
There still are “about half a dozen producers making a living” producing sheep products in the association’s territory, Naegle said. “The sheep industry is a real good part of the agriculture industry.”
In particular, Naegle said, the growth of farmers markets and the focus on more locally grown foods has helped sheep ranchers. People want to know where their food comes from and that it is produced in environmentally sustainable ways.
Customers are especially discovering the hardy Navajo Churro sheep, Naegle said. Churro sheep originally were brought to the Southwest by the Spanish about 400 years ago and were thought all but extinct.
However, Churros were found in the Southwest and became the basis for this growing industry, which Naegle said has customers coming back for more.
Naegle admitted that the younger generation is less interested in agriculture. To counteract that trend, Naegle said the San Juan Wool Growers Association helps encourage young people to get more involved through the 4-H Youth Development Organization and by sponsoring a youth scholarship through a lamb growers group at the La Plata County Fair.
“What we’re really about is education,” Naegle said.
The growers association works closely with both the U.S. Forest Service and outdoor recreation groups on such issues as grazing permits and in educating outdoors enthusiasts how to act when they encounter flocks that may be guarded by dogs, Naegle said.
Heritage Days honored those who work with sheep in others ways, as well.
A group of Polish-American dairy sheep producers from Illinois, called Tatra Mountain Cultural Foundation, marched in the parade and performed traditional Polish mountain folk music and dances in the park.
Andrew Tokarz, head of the troupe, said the members raise dairy sheep, which means they are milked and much of that milk is turned into cheese.
In Poland, the sheep forage high in the 7,000-to-8,000-foot Tatra Mountains in the Carpathian Range of Central Europe.
At the end of the grazing season, the sheep are brought down from the mountains and the growers celebrate with the Redyk Festival, which features music, dance, food and other celebratory activities, Tokarz said.
The Tatra Mountain Cultural Foundation performs about once a month, mostly in the western half of the U.S. But Tokarz said the group also has been in the annual Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade, at Polish-American events and events celebrating multinational and multicultural relations.
While the musicians play, the dancers perform traditional sheepherder dances as well as what are called “brigand” dances.
Tokarz said that in the days of serfdom, the lords of the land would “impress” the serfs into service as sheepherders. But some of these young men escaped into the mountains and became brigands, or outlaws, along the lines of Robin Hood.
That explanation is an interesting analogy to the growth of the Polish Solidarity Union, which eventually helped ease Communism out of Eastern and Central Europe.
By performing these dances and music, such as at the Trailing of the Sheep Festival in Ketchum and Hailey, Idaho, Tokarz said, “we (want) to reach out into the (sheep-growing) community” they all belong to.