Shear love: SD man, 87, shears through 71st year

DONNELLY, S.D. -- O'Donald "Don" Simonson is the first to admit he can't actually "see" every detail on a sheep anymore. No worries. After 71 years as a professional in sheep shearing, Simonson, now age 87, has his cloven-hooved friends pretty mu...

Sheep shearer
Don Simonson, 87, shears 40 ewes in a day, with much of the day bent over and manhandling animals that weigh 150 to 200 pounds. He says his back muscles have built up over his 71 years in the business. (Mikkel Pates / Agweek)

DONNELLY, S.D. -- O'Donald "Don" Simonson is the first to admit he can't actually "see" every detail on a sheep anymore.

No worries.

After 71 years as a professional in sheep shearing, Simonson, now age 87, has his cloven-hooved friends pretty much memorized.

"Awww yes! I know what they look like," a broad-smiling Simonson, 87, says on a Saturday in late March.

It seemed a perfect day for Simonson.


He and his companions -- Joe Reinart, a well driller from Beardsley, Minn., and Jason Madsen, a dairyman from Rosholt -- loaded up his home-built, hydraulic wool bagger on a flatbed trailer and took off in his pickup.

The three-man crew was up and running at Rodney Giese's five-generation Oak Ridge Farm of Donnelly, Minn., by 8:30 a.m.

The Gieses and their friends were enlisted as "catchers," bringing sheep to the shearers and putting the sheep on their butts on makeshift plywood floors.

Each shearer has his own pace and style, operating with choreographed efficiency.

Self-styled Simonson first grabs the wool on the back of the neck, holding the animal until it's in a position to shear -- first on the front leg, then up the neck to just under the ear, and out by by the eye. He then shears down the side, picks up the animal, turns her around to shear on the other side.

The shears are similar to hair clippers and makes passes that are called "swipes" or "blows." His friends shear in the more classical Australian style, which is faster but goes harder on the back.

"You always try and keep the sheep comfortable and she won't fight you," Simonson says.

He shears down the other side and slowly lays the animal sheep down until it's sheared around the rump. Through it all, the sheep occasionally will go limp, but quickly come to after the job -- scampering into the shorn corner of the shed.


And on to the next, the next.

And the next.

Dinner is at noon in the house. The lunchtime conversations are colorful and lively, ranging from well drills to vehicles, to old shearing tales.

"Listen to 'em," Madsen says, rolling his eyes with amusement. "It's always a good time."

They're back at it again until about 4:30 p.m., when they were done. At the end of the last fleece, Simonson reached up to a "clicker" counting device. He's done 40, while Jason and Joe have done 69 and 77, respectively.

At the end, the men collect their pay for the shearing.

Simonson is the wool buyer, so he's the one who jaws with Giese about how the group will get paid -- either a straight for cash or based on "grade and yield," meaning the quality and cleanliness.

Madsen and Simonson drive with about 20 bags. They place the bags in the warehouse, which holds today holds more than 37,000 pounds in all, ready for a truck from Groenewold Fur & Wool of Foreston, Ill.


After that, it's supper with Maureen, his wife of 62 years.

Simonson says a day like this makes him "dog tired," but it's a good tired. "I get out of shape unless I'm shearing steady," he says.

Same, but different

The tools of the sheep shearing trade have changed little through the years.

The so-called "handpiece" is nicer, but power shaft to it is much the same, fitting into a bayonet-style connection. The thing is driven with a shaft to the handpiece, turning like a tractor power take-off, with three synchronized joints, all powered by an electric motor.

Prices have changed, of course.

The handpiece cost about $12.50 when he started shearing in 1940. Back then, it came with two sets of knives. Today, the same tool costs more than $400 and the knives are extra -- $30 apiece.

"Now it's electric, but it was a Briggs & Stratton gasoline motor into the 1950s before the REA (Rural Electrification Act) came in," Simonson says.


The pay is better, of course.

Simonson started out at 10 cents a head for shearing ewes, while farm workers were making $1 a day. Today, he gets $4 a head, while a good farm laborer may earn $15 an hour.

Sheep have changed, too.

In the 1940s, pregnant ewes were less than 100 pounds. Today, they often are 200 pounds, sometimes even 300 pounds.

"I'm not a very big person," Simonson says. "If they were as heavy back then as they are today, I wouldn't be shearing sheep."

Simonson was 5 foot, 11 inches tall and about 140 pounds in his younger days. Today, he's about 165 pounds.

"I've lost a lot of muscle since I've slowed down."

The shearing season has changed dramatically.


"In the early days, we'd plant the corn first and then shear," he says. "You didn't shear sheep in the wintertime. And at the end of the season, we'd look at the rye field. We said, 'All right, when they cut the rye, we're through shearing sheep.'"

Norwegian Irish?

In 1884, Simonson's grandparents came from Norway and settled in Benson, Minn. In 1896, Grandpa Jurgen Simonson moved the family 70 miles from Benson to Roberts County, S.D., in a covered wagon. Among the kids were Don's father, Oswald, then age 8.

Oswald grew up and married Emily Christianson, who had emigrated with her family from Norway in 1902. This couple married in 1917 and farmed for a living.

O'Donald was born June 10, 1922, the middle of three sons. An older brother died at age 13. (And no, O'Donald isn't Irish, but he's glad you asked because he loves to deliver a standard joke line: "I think some Irishman must have chased my mother over the hill one time.")

Don graduated from West Central School of Agriculture in Morris, Minn., in 1940. He aspired to go to veterinary school at Iowa State University in Ames, but there was no money for it.

"There were some wool buyers from Wheaton, Minn., who said, 'Why don't you get a shearing machine and learn how to shear sheep?' That's what I did," he says. "I bought a little Model T Ford with a box on the back. I suppose it was a pickup. I went down the road, shearing sheep, and I'm telling you I was pretty proud.

"There was no cab on the Model T, and I'd get working, sweating, and the weather was cold and there was a wind blowing. I'd have to get in that vehicle and drive it home. And I'd get cramps. I'd get cramps in my hands, and it was horribly painful. I'd have to stop and quit driving."


He taught himself to shear, but he learned what he could from others. (Most people learn the Australian today.) In the 1940s, the country was just starting to come out of the Depression. Farms were small, averaging about 160 acres.

Initially, sheep shearing was a crowded field. In the immediate four-township area, there were seven shearers, but World War II changed all of that.

"I was talking to the county ag agent one day, and he said, 'By the way, how do you stand in the draft?' I said I think I'm I-A'" draft classification, which meant he'd likely be drafted into the military soon.

"The county agent said, 'They're not going to take you. We need sheep shearers and we've lost several of our sheep shearers now,'" Simonson recalls. "He went to the draft board file and found my page and said, 'I'll take care of that.' He wouldn't let me go to war. They call that a deferment."

Simonson says he wouldn't have "minded" going to war, but realized shearing sheep was important, too.

"If I had a job to do, I feel that I was needed here. At the time, I was still living at home. My dad had quite few milking cows, and at the time, we had 300 laying hens. All of those things were needed in the war effort. I thought if that's what I was to do, I said, 'OK, I'll do it.'"

The wonder years

During the season, Simonson got so he'd shear every day.

"I would try to shear 100 sheep every day. There were days when I'd shear up around 150," he says.

In the 1950s, farms started getting bigger and more specialized. Simonson tried farming himself but got disillusioned by three dry years and decided to stick with shearing and heavy equipment operation.

In those days, Simonson traveled 10 to 15 miles from home. Shearing season shifted more heavily to wintertime and construction was in the summer. The market for wool was good, paying as much as $1.65 a pound.

"People learned that it was best for the market if they had those lambs beginning Jan. 1, and so between that and April is still my heavy shearing time," he says.

The idea was to get the thick wool off of the ewes before lambing.

"They get more active and it takes a lot less feeding space with the wool off. They get more active and they gain faster," he says.

After the ewes are shorn, shearing turns to the feeder lambs, which then run through about May 15.

In the 1960s, farms increased to two and three quarters of land, and became much more specialized. The trend toward shearing ewes in the winters and lambs in the summer became more pronounced.

"Especially when the heat came, those lambs gained so much better if they had the wool off," Simonson says. "They were more comfortable and weren't laying there puffing."

Many of the flocks easily were more than 200 ewes at this time, and one notable flock in the Britton area was 8,700 ewes.

"That was the Ray Jarret family -- the biggest flock I ever sheared," he says, remembering he was sometimes one of nine shearers.

"We'd shear three times a year in a season," he says. "We started about Jan. 20 and would probably sheer 2,000 to 3,000, and then on Feb. 20, we'd shear about that many again, and on March 20, we'd shear the bucks and the ewe lambs that they'd saved back from the year before for replacements. Last time I sheered for them was 1968. At the time, they had 250 quarters of land."

Meanwhile, the wool industry lost market share as synthetic fabrics started to replace wool. The new fabrics were lighter, softer and could be washed without shrinking, but they weren't always as warm when wet.

Meanwhile, Simonson was working on pipelines for crude oil and natural gas in Minnesota and North Dakota. He had an opportunity to work on the Alaskan Pipeline.

"That was big news back then," he says. "They were advertising for people, especially for people in the Northwest who lived in the cold climates. You'd work nine weeks and were eligible for two weeks R and R," he says.

He worked five years in Alaska, running heavy equipment and then coming home in the winter to shear sheep. He worked on the pipeline in 1975 and 1976, in the oilfields for two years after that and one year in the gold mines.

"Twice I worked 16 weeks without a day off," he recalls. "For the season, I averaged 10½ hours a day. Many weeks we put in over 100 hours. But the wages were good."

Very good.

In the 1970s, farming becomes more specialized, although the pothole region from Rosholt to the Canadian line and south to Watertown, S.D., remains well suited to livestock.

"People had to have more sheep to make it a paying proposition," he says.

He retired from heavy equipment operation in 1985. He then was able to concentrate on sheep.

In the 1980s and 1990s, the price of a shorn lamb recovered.

The later years

In the 1990s, Simonson remembers getting a phone call from Dion VanWell of Watertown. Today, VanWell is among the region's largest sheep operators, but back then, he was primarily into shearing.

Simonson would stay at VanWell's place during the week and the two would travel far and wide in a little Toyota pickup and a trailer. They went to Wyndmere, N.D., to Iowa, to several feedlots near Olivia, Minn. VanWell had his own feedlot of 3,200 lambs.

"It wasn't a bit uncommon to drive 100 miles in the morning before I'd start shearing -- sometimes more," Simonson says. "More than once I'd get up and go to Watertown, and then we'd go to Hoven, out by the Missouri River. We'd do that several times a year. All summer long we sheared. Didn't make any difference how hot it was because the two of us couldn't keep up."

Today, VanWell isn't in the shearing business, per se, so Simonson is back, more on his own, working things out with his own clients. He's never advertised. He doesn't drive any more, so he shears "in company" with Madsen and Reinart. In a typical season, he still goes to about 50 places.

He used to do 12 sheep an hour -- one every five minutes.

"If you do that, you don't have any trouble shearing 100 in a day. I think I'm doing pretty good if I can average maybe seven or eight an hour," he says.

If he ever was competitive, he isn't anymore. Someone who's sheared perhaps a million sheep in his life doesn't have to be.

Now, he takes it easy to avoid nicking the sheep. He carries a needle and thread in the pickup to repair any major injury, but he says it's rare. A crew might have to use the needle a few times a season, but he can't remember the last time that was necessary.

"Anyone can have an accident," he acknowledges. "Anyone that's ever sheared sheep has had an accident, but it's not normal. We're talking many thousands of sheep."

Don and Maureen were married April 3, 1948. Shearing is how he's raised his family.

They had 10 children -- six daughters and four sons -- now scattered across the country and world.

"My wife and I are very fortunate," he says.

Their children helped with livestock on the home place -- some had cattle and a few hogs -- but none learned to shear, he says.

"All of them, their academics were quite high. The two older boys tried shearing, but when dad came home, he was all dirty and he stunk. I suppose that had something to do with it," he says.

Simonson says shearing is becoming something of a lost art.

"It's hard work and it's a dirty job," he says.

"I've started two people," he says. "Both of them are very good shearers, but so many of our small flocks have gone out of business that they're almost putting me out to pasture."

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
What To Read Next
Get Local