Historic Basque sheep camp restoration underway
Neil Johnson of Grass Valley recently paid a visit to his past in Russel Valley. As a trapper in the sheep herding industry, Johnson based his operations out of the Russel Valley Basque Sheep Camp from 1946 to 1983. He worked with Basque sheepherders to protect the sheep and lambs from coyote predators.
“There weren’t too many people there, just sheepherders and camp tenders back then,” Johnson said, reflecting on the good times he spent there every year from May to September. “I enjoyed working there over the years, it was real nice to spend the summers there.”
Although unsure of what exact year the Russel Valley Basque Sheep Camp was constructed, U.S. Forest Service archaeologist Carrie Smith said some of the structures still standing at the site were there in the 1940s and used by different sheep herding companies throughout the summer months.
“When I first got there it was plenty old and that was in 1946,” Johnson said.
He said the camp looked much the same as it did long ago on his most recent visit two weeks ago, and that brought back the old memories.
“I spent a lot of good days there. It was nice to get back there and see some of the same people,” he said. He said he remembers cooking Basque meals in the oven at the site, and lack of good food was never an issue.
“I remember we always had plenty to eat -lamb chops, soup and anything you wanted,” he said.
The sheep camp at Russel Valley has a cook house, a spring house, a barn, a water tower, a hitching post, a bath house, a storage shack and a large bread oven. Used as a base camp for herders, in its day the Russel Valley Sheep camp was bustling with activity. The storage shack was referred to by volunteers as a “skid shack,” which was dragged on large railroad skids from the Hobart Mills site.
“Oral history has indicated there was some operation based out of that location as far back as 1911,” Smith said.
Former Basque sheepherder Abel Mendeguia, who now lives in Reno, brought his sheep herding company to the Russell Valley camp for the first time in the spring of 1966. He and his wife Judy spent the majority of their summers at the camp until 1990, and Smith said that was the last time the buildings at the camp were actively used.
Smith recently received a $20,000 grant from the forest service to help restore the old camp, which has begun to dilapidate, with Passport In Time (PIT) volunteers coming together from near and far to strengthen and improve the existing structures which are no longer used by sheepherders. Smith said the current permitee does still herd sheep in August and September in the area, but doesn’t use the buildings.
“We wanted to try to stabilize the buildings as best we could,” Smith said. “This was a big base camp. As far as I know, there is not a camp like this in our immediate area. It’s pretty unique. This is one of those last vestiges of that lifestyle and industry.”
Today, Smith said, sheep herding is a dying industry. The two phases of the project were completed in June and July. The first phase was the documentation phase, where six volunteers helped complete architectural drawings for all of the buildings at the camp.
“We got enough detailed information so that if they burned down they could be rebuilt,” she said. The volunteers included artists, retired engineers and architects.
The second phase of the project was the restoration and stabilization of the structures. Twelve volunteers worked on and off throughout the last week in July to restore the fragile buildings.
The motivation for the Russel Valley Sheep Camp project included recent vandalism to the buildings at the camp, fear of forest fires in that area and extra poor condition of the cookhouse and barn, Smith said.
“I had noticed this spring that somebody had gone in and broken all of the glass window panes and some of the boards in the walls had been kicked out,” she said.
Volunteers and forest service personnel helped brace the buildings up, construct new roofs, add drainage systems, replace walls and floors, fix door hinges and make other needed repairs.
One significant change to the Russel Valley Sheep camp since it was first built is the impact of the construction of Stampede Reservoir on the site, Smith said. Since the reservoir was built, the water table has increased significantly in the meadows at the site, and the water problem escalated the deterioration to the cookhouse and the barn, causing the bottoms to rot out.
The project culminated with a large celebration at the end of the week, in which Basque folk and others who were connected to the camp came to feast, play music and share stories. People were talking in Basque and sharing their culture with others and cowboy poets recited prose.
“It was like a big extended camp reunion,” Smith said. “There’s this really rich tradition that was shared.”
The group baked in the large Basque oven, which was used during the sheep herding days to bake large quantities of bread to bring out to the sheepherders along with other supplies.
“The oven was built in 1946 or 1947,” Smith said. “It was huge. We fixed it up and used it and did all of our bread and deserts in it.”
Abel, familiar with Basque ovens, knows the temperature of the oven by putting his arm inside the oven door.
“Abel said, ‘If you can put your arm in the oven for 10 seconds, it’s about 350 degrees,'” Smith said. “It was really neat to watch Abel use that oven.”
When his company used the Russell Valley camp, Abel would bake bread every five days and then bring it out to the sheepherders.
For information on U.S. Forest Service Passport In Time projects and how to get involved, call the Truckee Ranger District at 587-3558.
“It’s a good program for people who are interested in doing historical and archeological projects,” Smith said.
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