By Mike Patterson
When the Rev. Rob Gieselmann came from Tennessee as interim rector at St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Sun Valley, Idaho, there was one aspect of the job he didn’t learn about until he arrived. One of his duties was to bless a thousand head of sheep swarming toward him like a tidal wave of wool.
It falls upon the rector of St. Thomas to undertake this task during the annual sheep parade in neighboring Ketchum, when a thousand or more woolies are herded by shepherds and border collies down Main Street. It’s part of the rambunctious Trailing of the Sheep Festival held each October in Ketchum, Sun Valley and neighboring Hailey. 2019 marked the festival’s 23rd year, drawing more than 25,000 spectators from dozens of states and several foreign countries.
“I thought I should get some steel-toed boots,” Gieselmann told his congregation hours before the parade on Sunday, Oct. 13. “But then I thought I’d better wear something that I can throw away when the parade’s over,” referring to the droppings left behind by the marching sheep.
The five-day event celebrates the culture, history, people and animals involved in the sheep industry, specifically in the Wood River Valley region of central Idaho and generally throughout the United States. It stems from the region’s 15-decade tradition of raising sheep and moving, or “trailing,” them from their summer grazing pastures in the rugged Sawtooth Mountains and ultimately to warmer climates in Arizona and California for winter grazing and lambing.
The parade, complete with sheep, historic sheep wagons, dancers and musicians, has been held annually since 1997. Activities during the festival include lamb tastings at local restaurants, cooking and wool craft classes and workshops, sheep tales storytelling, and championship sheep dog trials starring dozens of energetic border collies from across the country. There’s a folklife fair, featuring a day of food (lamb, of course), exhibits, sheep shearing, sheep camps, cultural dancers, musicians and booths offering a myriad of sheep- and wool-related items for sale and admiring.
The festival’s climax comes on its last day when the sheep are trailed through a canyon of cheering spectators lining Main Street and are blessed by St. Thomas’ rector.
By virtue that the original organizers of the festival were Episcopalians, St. Thomas’ rector has been the one traditionally asked to bless the sheep. Or as the former rector Rev. Ken Brannon once quipped: “They are Episcopal sheep.”
Brannon had been blessing the sheep and his congregation at St. Thomas for nearly a dozen years. When he moved to Dallas in July 2019 as vice rector of Saint Michael and All Angels Episcopal Church, Gieselmann was hired in the interim while St. Thomas searches for a new, permanent rector.
At first, Gieselmann said he was a little apprehensive about standing in front of a herd of sheep, but he concluded that there was little hazard at all. When the sheep approach, they flow around him like a river.
Even the sheep are careful about stepping on each other. “After passing us by, one of the sheep stumbled and fell,” Gieselmann said after this year’s parade. “I thought it might get trampled but the other sheep started hopping over her and moving around her until she stumbled back to standing.”
In the past, Rt. Rev. Brian J. Thom, bishop of the Diocese of Idaho, joined Brannon in the blessing because the parade coincided with his annual visit to St. Thomas. This year, the Rev. Kathleen Bean, who was ordained at St. Thomas this summer and serves as its associate rector, joined Gieselmann. Bean is no stranger to sheep – she and her husband Brian also own Lava Lake Lamb where they produce grass-fed and wild range lambs for market. Rabbi Robbi Sherwin of the Wood River Jewish Community, which utilizes St. Thomas for services, also participated in the blessing as part of an interfaith outreach.
The parade is scheduled to start at noon, but the sheep don’t always adhere to strict timetables set by parade organizers. As the sheep dawdled along one year, Brannon was left waiting their arrival in the middle of Main Street and subjected to good-natured fun-poking by the spectators and announcer.
Reflecting afterward on his adventures as a sheep-blesser, Gieselmann said “it was not as chaotic as I thought it would be. I imagined we might startle the sheep as they came upon us, but we didn’t. They didn’t know whether to treat the three of us – we were three people standing as one in a small space – as some sort of obstacle to go around or as potential threats to their safety.”
“Many of the sheep would look at me in the eye, then scuttle around us,” he recalled. “Later I was told that they would have taken eye contact as the threat of a predator, such as a wolf or coyote. But I have to say it didn’t feel that way to me.
“I suppose what I am saying is this: They moved in concert, like water flowing in a stream, then flowing naturally around a boulder in the stream.”
What does one say to bless sheep? Gieselmann told them to “Go and be the best sheep you can be.”
The next Trailing of the Sheep Festival is scheduled for Oct. 7-11, 2020. For more information visit www.trailingofthesheep.org.
Mike Patterson, a member of St. Michael’s and All Angels Episcopal Church in Blanco, Texas, is a free-lance writer and photographer. His family raises sheep and goats in the Texas Hill Country.