The Espil Sheep Company

06. Pete Espil, JP Pete Espil, Louis Espil

Pete Espil, Jr. , “Pete” Espil, Sr., Louie Espil and unknown buyer checking grade of wool. Circa late 1940s or early 1950s.

Today we continue the saga of Pete Espil and the Espil Sheep company.  In 1899 Pete became a naturalized citizen in the Superior Court of San Francisco. Citizenship was necessary for a man to be able to secure summer range for his 2,000 sheep with the U.S. Forest Service. Pete secured 175,000 acres with a 99-year lease in 1902. A cabin for living quarters and headquarters was built near Reese Tank, north of Humphreys Peaks. Water was an important commodity for any livestock operation and with the help of Frank Auza, Sr., another sheep herder, a metal tank was built at Pat Springs and later in 1926, a hand-built water pipeline was added to carry the water to the ranch. He added two other water tanks closer to where he grazed his sheep as his herd grew. Pete brought a section of land from the Otondo family, another sheep ranching family, near Lockett Meadow in the foothills on the western side of the San Francisco Peaks. A dipping vat can still be seen in Schultz Pass that he built for his sheep to rid them of parasites. The Deadman Ranger Station was added to his holdings and the station was converted into a home for his growing family for Pete had married a Spanish born girl, Isidora Aristoy, in 1913.  Isidora was half the age of Pete, being only 21.   They had two sons, M. P. (Pete), Jr. (1917) and A. L (Louie) (1922), and one daughter, Dora (1920).

In the early days of the industry, sheep were trailed each year from the northern summer pine forests to the Salt River Valley in the winter. It was necessary to secure a swath of land to be used for this purpose. Pete and other sheep ranchers purchased land that would later become the I-17 transportation corridor between Flagstaff and Phoenix. The trail was called the Black Canyon and Beaverhead-Grief Hill Sheep Trail and was used by many sheep outfits.  Part of the trail is still used today by two of the three remaining sheep families within the state, the Auzas and Manterolas, as they try to maintain the traditional cyclical movement of sheep between winter and summer grazing.

Pete continued to grow his operation adding more ewes and more land. As his outfit grew his troubles began.  In the 1930s questions were raised about Pete’s citizenship. When he was naturalized in 1899 there were three witnesses who accompanied him to the court. But a few things happened between 1899 and the 1930s. The San Francisco Earthquake of 1906 and the fire, which raged on for days, destroyed most of the town along with court records. At a Flagstaff salon, Pete told his friend of his trouble and unbeknownst to them, the conversation was overheard. An unscrupulous rancher pounced on this unfortunate turn of event for Pete and a court battle ensued for years as investigators were hired to find the witnesses to his citizenship.  After all the court battles, Espil lost part of his ranch and legal fees of $10,000.  But, one of his granddaughter’s told the author, that their grandfather said the sheepmen all had to work together, and he never made an issue of the loss he suffered.

Espil later in life became one of the largest sheep owners within the state basing his winter operations in Litchfield. He sons worked with him throughout their younger years. In 1936, he began to leased winter grazing land from the Goodyear Farms. His flock had grown to 8,000 Rambouillet ewes. He bred his ewes with one of the best purebred rams, Burton bucks, that he purchased from Idaho. From this union, the lambs outweighed other lambs in Arizona and when sold, fetch a better price. The lambs were milk fed and fed on the alfalfa and barley pastures that he leased. About 90% of the lambs were Kosher-killed and went to New York.

Grandchildren had fond memories of their grandfather and spending time out with the sheep. Their parents and grandfather would never drive by a feedlot or where a flock was grazing out in the fields without saying “Ohhhh, the smell of money!” In the winter time, the children would be found at the sheep camp as their fathers and grandfather would be found here with the many activities that fall brought to a sheep outfit. The winter months found the sheep herders in a camp all together as they dealt with the birth of the lambs. The herders slept in bunk houses and a family style table was used to feed them all. The children remembered the smells of the sheepherder’s bread, lamb stew, and pinto beans on his campfire. There were also the horse’s smells, hay, the alfalfa fields where the sheep grazed, and their remembrance of all the dust. Hens, donkeys, dogs, burros, pens for sick ewes and horses were part of the equation in this “sheep camp!” The children would help feed the leppies, those lambs unable to be cared for by an ewe and hunt the eggs that the hens laid around the sheep camp.

The life of Pete Espil and other sheep ranchers would not be told if not for the children and grandchildren willing to talk to the author.   The author, me, owns a great deal of gratitude to those who willing shared their stories of parents and grandparents. Their experiences of growing up among the sheep also needs to be told.  Read on and find out why!

Life as a sheep rancher came at a cost for the Espil men and their families, but it is true for any of the sheep ranchers. Fathers were gone from their wives and children when trailing the sheep from the winter-summer and back again grazing cycle. This could be as much as six weeks each trip. Fathers missed school events and many birthdays and other celebrations would be held at other times to accommodate the cyclical movement of the sheep.  When the family did celebrate, there was always plenty of food with lamb a main ingredient as it was roasted over a pit. Games were played by both children and adults.  Music was also a part of the celebration.

During the summers, the families would move to a home near the grazing sheep. The men spent time taking supplies to the herders each week, checking on each herder and his needs and the health of the sheep and it was a treat for the children to accompany the men. Children were expected to help at home and around the sheep camps.   More family stories from the children will be added in the next few weeks as I get time to write them up.


One thought on “The Espil Sheep Company

  1. I have early recorded documents. 1906-1948
    Land, tax and sheep purchases. I would like to give them to the family, can you help?


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