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Special Section Archives The Altamont Enterprise, August 11, 2011

From fleece to loom, the friendly Altamont fair sheep barn has it all,
Old hands and young city slickers can greet sheep and make wool

By Melissa Hale-Spencer

ALTAMONT — Donna Rost has loved animals since she was a girl. She grew up in Rotterdam and longed for a horse.

When she was 15, her father bought her a quarter horse, Bay Lady, on the condition that she pay to board it.

“I had to earn the money,” said Rost. “It was a learning experience.”

When she married, Rost and her husband, now retired from steam turbine maintenance, saved to buy some land in Delanson. They brought Bay Lady with them. They later took in a horse named Wendy who was Bay Lady’s constant companion.

Rost’s horse lived for 45 years. She still has a catch in her voice when she tells of how Bay Lady died in 2001: “She went down on some ice.”

Wendy died soon after. “She died of a broken heart,” said Rost, explaining that the veterinarian’s blood work showed nothing was wrong.

So Rost understood when her daughter — also at age 15 — wanted a sheep.

In 1996, Heather Rost volunteered to work at the Altamont Fair and was put in the sheep barn. “She fell in love with Corriedales,” said her mother. “She came home bubbling about these sheep.”

Rost had given up her full-time job as a computer specialist at General Electric to focus on raising her son, Patrick, and daughter. “To me, children were the key,” she said. “The family was most important.” As for finances, she said, “We squeak by.”

Following her daughter’s desire, Rost did some research on sheep, and the family ended up buying two crossbreeds from Grandma Beebe’s Wool Farm — a ewe named Sweet Adeline for Heather and a ram named Goliath for Patrick.

“Purebreds were too expensive,” said Rost. The sheep they bought were a cross between Romneys and Corriedales.

Heather wanted to show her ewe at the fair. “When we walked into the sheep barn, we could just feel the warm atmosphere,” said Rost. “We had no equipment, nothing for trimming,” Rost recalled. “We showed up with just the sheep in hand.”

Pat Canaday and Regina Embler got right to work. “They taught Heather how to block a sheep for show,” said Rost.

Sweet Adeline was placed in a blocking stand. “You tease the wool, pulling the tips up and then snip off the tips, said Rost. “It was a 10-hour process and she did it all on the fairgrounds,” Rost said of Heather.

The work paid off. Sweet Adeline took home a blue ribbon in the 4-H competition in which animals are judged against a standard.

Heather went on to start a flock of Romneys. “Their wool is more saleable,” said Rost, comparing it to Corriedales’. “It’s shorter and easier to handle.” Heather had finished first in a national youth show with a white Romney ewe. The Rosts then bought a Romney ram, Goldeneye, from Embler, which she sold to them for less than the auction bid because Heather was in 4-H.

Heather is now 31 and her 8-year-old son, Jarod Yost, will show his sheep, Rosebud, at next week’s Altamont Fair. He lives in Scotia and stays with his grandparents every other weekend. This week, he practiced leading his ewe. “She walked along with him,” said his proud grandmother.

“No backstabbing”

In the years between, sheep have become a big part of the Rosts’ lives. Rost is co-superintendent, with Noreen Laviska, of the sheep barn at the fair. About 150 sheep will be exhibited at this year’s fair and Rost promises the atmosphere will be just as welcoming as it was all those years ago for her daughter, Heather.

“People come in every year and want to show their sheep but don’t know how,” said Rost. “Everyone just pitches in. There is no backstabbing. Other shepherds help when someone needs it. If someone can’t get in one day to feed their sheep, others do it. There’s no holding back.”

Besides shepherds and other farmers knowledgeable about sheep, the barn is frequented by the curious. “Some of these kids, it’s the first time they’ve seen farm animals,” said Rost. “Sheep quickly learn, if you stand by the fence, somebody will pat your nose. They are very personable animals.”

The Rosts’ ram, Goldeneye was a fixture at the fair for years, before he died. “People came back every year to see him. He was quite the mooch. You could pet him and pet him and pet him.”

This dichotomy of visitors is typical of all the livestock exhibits at the fair.

“If you go back to 1893,” said Marie McMillen, the fair’s director, referring to its founding date, “people came to the fair to bring their animals and show the best of their breeds.”

For example, cows that produced more milk would bring a farmer more money. “The goal was to improve the breed, for milk or for meat,” she said.

“When the fair was formed,” McMillen said, “it was a society where people would gather every year. They would bring their finest animals to be judged…The offspring would be sold.”

The fair’s mission to this day as a not-for profit, McMillen said, is to be an agricultural and historical society. “That’s the reason the fair is here,” she said. “It’s the centerpiece.”

In recent decades, much of the farmland in Albany, Schenectady, and Greene counties has been developed. Suburbanites and city dwellers come to the fair and are curious to see animals with which they are not familiar — that is, farm animals.

“People get an opportunity to get up close and see where milk comes from,” said McMillen. “Some remember the animals from visiting their grandparents’ farms. But we’re getting a generation that doesn’t know milk comes from a cow. We have an educational responsibility as well,” she said of the fair. “It’s a great place for families to see where their milk, or meat, or eggs come from.”


Sheep can be judged for their wool or for their meat. “The crimp in the wool has to be consistent over the body of the animal,” said Rost. “It affects the spinning of the wool.”

When meat breeds compete, the judge “looks to see if it is a good carcass animal,” said Rost, evaluating such attributes as the length of the loin or the development of muscles. “These judges do wonders with their fingers,” she said. The animals are “slick shorn,” which means they are sheared down to a half-inch so the judge can see muscle.

The 4-H contestants are also judged on how they handle their animals. “Sheep are boneheads,” said Rost. “People say they’re stupid. They’re not. They have a flock mentality. When you pull them away from the flock, they can panic.”

She recounted once seeing a 4-year-old showing a Dorset — “They’re such large sheep, you feel like you should put saddles on them,” she quipped.

This year’s judge is Graeme Stewart from Saugerties, manager of Anchorage Romneys, a huge farm. “He’s one of the top judges in the country,” said Rost.

Market lambs will be judged on Tuesday at 7 p.m. and the open sheep show will be Wednesday at noon. Judging is based on breed characteristics, and there are well over 100 breeds of sheep.

Ten specific breeds are judged at the Altamont Fair with an 11th category for any other breed. A Best of Show for wool and a Best of Show for meat are awarded.

After the shearing

The sheep barn will feature hands-on activities every day of the fair. For example, visitors can learn about wet felting, where they take layers of wet wool and rub them together to make felt. “Kids get a kick out of that,” said Rost.

In the front of the barn, wool products will be on display in the wool nook, where Jaye Nakamura is the superintendent.

Francis Ripley, a skilled spinner, will return to her place in the sheep barn where she was long a popular fixture. In her 90s now, she has moved away from her home on Gun Club Road.

“She knows spinning inside out,” said Rost. “She’s lost most of her vision and can’t drive anymore so someone is driving to Olean where she lives now to pick her up.”

Ripley will be at the sheep barn every day of the fair, talking to visitors as she spins, and giving kids pieces of roving to take home. She’ll be staying, Rost said, with her great niece in Berne, Erin Bradt.

Bradt does continuous-strand weaving, which she will demonstrate at the fair by weaving a triangular shawl.

“Most looms have a warp and a weft that crisscross,” explained Rost. With continuous-strand weaving, just one strand of yarn is used.

A way of life

Rost spins and knits with wool from her sheep.

“It’s nothing you’ll ever get rich on,” she said. “You need to do it because you love it.”

She has a friend who raises sheep for slaughter, selling the meat to New York City restaurants, and makes a living at it. But raising sheep for wool is more of a hobby, said Rost.

“We would classify ourselves as a hobby farm,” she said, adding that their farm is part of an agricultural district in Schenectady County. “It’s a very, very rewarding lifestyle,” concluded Rost who also works as a school-bus driver.

The Rosts now keep a dozen Romney sheep that graze on their five acres. They own another 30 wooded acres, and coyotes are a problem. “If we’re not here, the sheep are in the barn,” said Rost. “That’s a lot of poop to scoop.”

Although Romneys can be used for meat or wool, the Rosts raise theirs just for wool. “We decided not to get into slaughter,” said Rost.

Fred DePaul from Vermont shears the Rosts’ sheep. Rost then skirts the fleece in preparation for selling it, often at the New York State Wool Festival in Rhinebeck.

Describing the process, she says she lays the fleece with the butt side — that is, the side that was next to the animal – down on her skirting table. “The tips are up,” she said. “You take the crap wool, like the belly and breech wool, off. …You pick out the hay; sheep tend to be sloppy and hay gets stuck in their wool. Then I roll it up and tie it with paper twine. The tips are on the inside, the butts on the outside; it makes a pretty presentation.”

She has spent as long as five or six hours skirting a single fleece. In the recent humid weather, the lanolin melts and sticks to her arms.

Once the fleece is skirted, it can then be sent to a wool mill to be turned into roving — a long shaft of fiber — or spun into yarn. Rost is experimenting now with dying her wool in such a way that the natural fiber colors show through, creating a “heather-y look.”

As part of Heritage Arts program in the Schoharie County 4-H, her daughter, Heather, learned to spin yarn. She then built her own spinning wheel from a kit. Her mother learned the art of spinning, too. Rost is now an active member of the Golden Fleece spinning guild.

“It’s very peaceful when you’re picking fleece or spinning,” she said. “When you’re stressed, it’s something you can go to.”

Rost’s latest project is to make her son a sweater from the fleece of his sheep. Patrick is a snowboarder and his friends have long admired his colorful hand-knit socks. Now, he’ll have a unique sweater, too.

“Wool will last forever if you take care of it,’ said Rost. “He’ll have this sweater for the rest of his life.”

Rost and her daughter are re-enactors. They don period garb to demonstrate spinning and weaving.

“Years ago, children as young as my grandson who’s 8, would be spinning,” said Rost. “Dad would weave in the winter time, and Mom would do the sewing.”

Her grandson, Jarod, is learning to weave and has just finished his first piece, making squares that will be sewn together into a bag.

“It’s carrying on a tradition,” said Rost. “It’s something that’s contagious.”

She concluded, “I wish I could just do this — raise the sheep and sell the wool. That is my love.”

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