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Volume 37 Issue 10 • June 28 - July 4, 2007 now in our 37th season

June Was For Sheep

No, it didn’t rain sheep on Nantucket in the old days.  Sheep storms were what the islanders called those periods of intense fogginess which often preside over the moors in late June and early July.  In the 1800s, the islanders knew that after several days the fog would drench the thick coats of the many sheep grazing and baaa-aaaing in the moors.  They also knew that after the fog inevitably came hot, sunny days during which the coats would dry.  That was the time for shearing, which meant the famous Sheep-Shearing festivals, with fun and games and food for one and all.

There was, long ago, a wide wooden gate called the New Town Gate, across the rough one-track-rutted road to Siasconset.  Near the first milestone on what is today a veritable highway, compared to most thoroughfares on the island, this gate was supposed to prevent sheep from getting into town.  As you’ll read below, this wasn’t always successful.  The town at one time set aside some land nearby for growing corn, wheat, barley, rye, and vegetables.  Ardent gardeners may be interested to know that the islanders enriched the sandy, poor soil for these plantings with sheep manure.  And the way they acquired this manure in large amounts when needed was to scare the bewillies out of the sheep in the dark of night, then on the next day collect the results of the understandable hysteria.

One wonders why those woolly, relatively maintenance-free lawnmowers aren’t kept by more people who are fortunate enough to have some land surrounding their houses on today’s island.  Of course they’d have to be penned in so that they wouldn’t make pests of themselves, as they apparently did at the Old Gaol off Vestal Street.  The town jailer, who’d let prisoners go home at night, was warned by one unfortunate that if he didn’t fix the door to the cell so the sheep couldn’t get in, the prisoner would simply leave and not come back.  More than once, even in the century before the construction of the jail in 1805, the citizens at Town Meeting demanded that something be done about the sheep roaming about.  Since they were all pretty much together in the Sheep Commons (when they weren’t in town, that is), the town had to employ a person to mark the owners’ symbols on the creatures’ ears.  There’s even a book somewhere, handwritten, that lists the various earmarks of sheep-owners.

The Festivals were interesting affairs, with picnicking and booths for games and food.  At this event, all were equals, and it was a time to renew acquaintances and court and just plain have fun.  In Henry Chandlee Forman’s Early Nantucket and Its Whalehouses a song from the hit list of the mid-1800s is reprinted:

The harper seats him ’neath the tent
Made of mainsail patched and rent;
The curious folk, of every hue,
Looked on as though they’d look him through.
He signifies his mad intent
To drink of the limpid element;
He eats a large three-cornered bun,
And then, his slight refection done,
He takes his harp, and plays again
The same mysterious wild refrain:
’Tis tew I can’t, and tew I can,
All the way to the shearing pen!
"Tew" is Scotch dialect for hard work.

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