Pete and Louie Espil

Sheep were important commodities during WWII and can be said for WWI, too, as the soldier’s uniform was all wool. Lamb was also shipped as meat for the troops.  It has been said that because lamb was the main meat in the diet of a soldier, they never ate it after returning from the war. But, the wool was more important and a high price was received for the fleece during this time.  Many sheep ranchers added to their flocks with the increase in price for the wool. But, getting back to the Espils….

Pete’s oldest son, M.P. (Pete) was unable to finish college as he took over for his father after an accident. The Espil sons added more land to their father’s original holdings and it was said that they ran one of the most efficient sheep outfits in Arizona and maybe even the West. It was during these times that they, the children, spending time with the men, learned the value of hard work from the adults who never gave up as this was their life.

When Pete, Sr. passed away in 1959, the two sons shared in the responsibilities of running the company. They continued to lease winter pastures from Goodyear Farms. Trucking was used instead of trailing the sheep as trails were limited with the encroachment of houses and businesses and the traffic congestion. The Espil Ranch was converted to cattle in 1977, but feeder lambs were still part of the winter operations in the far Salt River Valley. Unfortunately, the Espil sold the ranch with its livestock in August 1986 to the Navajo Nation.

A few reasons can be cited for selling. First, the conversion to cattle was a result of the federal government that hindered ranchers in defending the sheep from predators such as the coyote. Poisons had been outlawed. Second, the government also changed how laborers were brought into the United States and without the skilled labor who understood the nature of the sheep, domestic laborers wanted little to do with this type of work. A third reason was that the government began to allow cheaper meat and wool imports from Australia and New Zealand. Prices fell for the sheep rancher and they could not continue to operate their outfits.  Where prices were high during WWII and the purchase of wool uniforms for the soldiers, the sheep ranchers were able to make a living for their families.  But, those profits began to dwindle a few years after the end of the war. Louie stated that profits had been going down over the years and they were lucky to receive a six to eight percent profit. Profits had been as high as 20 to 25 percent.  He believed that the sheep industry would be totally gone from the western states if the government continued to put red tape in the way of the sheep rancher. He made this statement in the late 1970s! Over the next twenty to thirty years, most sheep ranchers sold their outfits stating these reasons and as a result of the encroaching civilization on the farm lands needed to raise their sheep in the winter and the additional cost of trucking sheep between winter and summer pastures. Today, only three families continue to raise sheep in large flocks in the state of Arizona, the Auzas (both father and son have separate outfits) and the Manterolas.

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