--Shepherds of Manhattan –

Tending the Flocks in America’s City Parks

by Linda Rorem

 

 

          In 1858 a competition was held for a plan to develop a large public park in New York City.  The winning designers, Calvert Vaux and Frederick Law Olmsted, envisioned a pastoral atmosphere, elegant and peaceful, carefully designed to look natural.  Grazing sheep, tended by a shepherd and dog, were part of that vision.  Olmsted preferred that the grass be clipped by sheep, considering the results superior in appearance to those obtained by use of mechanical mowers, and sheep provided fertilizer as well.  By 1863 a flock of Southdowns was established in the park. 

 

Other big city parks, a number of them also designed by Olmsted, followed a similar pattern.  Prospect Park in Brooklyn, Genesee Valley Park in Rochester, Franklin Park in Boston, Druid Hill Park in Baltimore, Washington Park in Chicago, and more, were home to flocks of sheep.  

 

 

 Peaceful scene for park-goers in 1916 -- a flock grazes in a city park,

 supervised by the shepherd and his dog

 

   

To house the Central Park flock, a fanciful sheepfold was built in 1870, with quarters for the shepherd and his family as well.  Over the years, as traffic increased and changed from carriages to cars, the sheep were escorted by their shepherd across the street to their grazing grounds and back again in the evening.  For many years that shepherd was James Conway, a native of Ireland.  He became the park shepherd in 1876 after having already worked for the city parks department for several years.  He remained on the job until his retirement in 1913.  For a short period after that, Patrick Keenan was delegated to look after the sheep.  Keenan was the keeper of the monkeys at the zoo and was displeased about the addition of shepherding to his duties, so he was soon succeeded by Frank Hoey, who remained the shepherd for the next 20 years. 

 

 

http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_3k2ilY9vkCY/TL9WjaPRw4I/AAAAAAAAB4I/hRL27w261Og/s640/sheepfold.jpg

 

 

The park sheepdogs were usually collies.  In 1878 the kennel columnist of the magazine Forest and Stream wrote:

 

The working of tending and driving sheep by a well bred collie can be witnessed almost every day at the Central Park in this city.  The dog, Scot, a blue mottled, is the property of Mr. W. F. Morgan, and was, if we mistake not, bred by Mr. John Hobart Warren, of Troy, N.Y., who imported a number of fine collies from the Queen’s kennels at Balmoral.  When Scot had attained his growth he was, at our suggestion and through the kindness of Mr. Conklin, placed with the sheep in the Park, where he soon developed the characteristic sagacity of his race.  Only a few days since while we were riding past, the keeper, at our request, called to Scot, ‘Go round them, Scot,’ and in two minutes the whole flock was in a compact mass.

 

The story is told of the determination of one of Central Park’s collies, Shep, to remain on duty when, after many years of service with the flock, an attempt was  made to retire him.  The aging sheepdog was sent to a farm in Putnam County, north of the city.  Unhappy about the change, he undertook a journey of 50 miles and found his way back to the Central Park fold.  A successor, Jack, was donated by financier and noted show Collie breeder J.P. Morgan in 1903, and continued to work until James Conway’s retirement.  Others breeds sometimes were used – in Central Park, Jack’s successor was an Airedale, and in subsequent years, in addition to several collies, an Old English Sheepdog helped tend the Central Park sheep in 1920, while in 1931 a German Shepherd Dog was on the job.  

 

A gift from J. P. Morgan, Jack worked in Central Park

with shepherd James Conway

(from Famous Four-Footed Friends by George Cockburn Harvey, 1916)

 

 

 

Sheep in Franklin Park, Boston – the shepherd and his dog can be seen

in the middle of the photo, on the far side of the flock.

 

 

In Franklin Park in Boston, the sheep were taken from their quarters in Franklin Field to graze in the area of the golf links, guided on their way by shepherd James Sweeney and his dogs.  As related in a 1903 account:

 

        Almost before the dew has vanished from the fresh, green grass, the entire flock begins the procession from Franklin field to the park.  Through the streets the dogs keep a watchful eye out for stragglers and “bolters” and do not relax their vigilance for an instant until the tiniest little lamb has been driven onto the golf course.  It requires a good deal of judgment, even for a human being, to keep the sheep off the private lawns and flower beds on the streets through which the flock passes on its way from field to the park, but the dogs seem to know as well as their master what is expected of them.  

 

A Boston Globe reporter wrote in 1910 about the flock of 250: 

 

        It is a refreshing, restful sight to see, without the confines of a big city, the pastoral picture of a flock of sheep grazing, attended by the shepherd and his dogs.  It is as if a bit of peaceful country life had been infused into the hustle of the busy metropolis.

 

          James Sweeney’s dogs then were Prince and Clyde.  An older dog, retired from active herding, served as the night watch for the flock at the fold.   

 

        The intelligence of Scotch collies is proverbial.  A whistle from the shepherd and an indication with his stick in the direction of some stragglers from the flock and the dogs are off like a flash to bring back the wanderers.  Usually, however, even this is not necessary, as the dogs patrol sentry-like around the sheep or post themselves in an advantageous position where they can command a good view of the whole flock, and while they do not pack the sheep close together unless ordered to do so, they nevertheless do not allow stragglers to wander very far.

 

        Wo betide any strange dog whose curiosity leads him into too close an inspect of any of the sheep, or who wish to play a canine joke on the sheep by running after and barking at them. He is immediately chased away, for these dogs can and will put up a good fight when necessary.

 

While contributing a picturesque element for the viewing pleasure of park visitors, the sheep were expected to fulfill practical requirements as well, and were handled like any other commercial flock.  Lambs were born, sheep were shorn, there were yearly sales of wool, lambs and grown sheep.  In Central Park the sheep were Southdowns at first, then later on the flock was changed to horned Dorsets.  Franklin Park had Shropshires, as did Fairmount Park in Philadelphia.  Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park had a fine flock of Southdowns.  The sheep were quite tame and often were petted by park-goers.  Interaction with the public wasn’t always positive, however.   There were incidents when sheep became ill from eating trash left by picnickers.  In Prospect Park a pushy ewe was known to raid baby carriages, even knocking them over, for the food she thought she might find there. 

 

Washington Park, Chicago, Illinois in 1917

 

 

Baltimore’s Druid Hill Park had two flocks, with a shepherd and dogs for each.   Sheep were first installed in Druid Hill Park in 1869.  In 1900 there were plans to sell the sheep, but the public wanted them to stay, and sheep were grazed in the park for another 40 years.   

 

 

Tending the flock in 1908 in Druid Hill Park, Baltimore, Maryland

 

 

Druid Hill Park, Baltimore, c1912

 

 

Below the Mansion House, Druid Hill Park, 1914

 

In a rural setting, but performing a similar function to the park sheep, were the flocks used to graze the grounds on the estates of the wealthy.  While there were plenty of regular farm sheep, of course, there were also flocks whose purpose was to keep the lawns around the mansion trimmed and, as was the case in the parks, add a picturesque element.  Both the designers of many of the city parks and the wealthy owners of eastern estates admired the scenery of English estates and private parks, and sheep were an element of that atmosphere.  Sheep on two of the Rockefeller estates were tended by two brothers from England – Cecil Fawkes at the Pocantico Hills estate of John D. Rockefeller, and Archie Fawkes at the Tarrytown estate of William Rockefeller.  Collies and Old English Sheepdogs helped the brothers in their tasks.  John D. Rockefeller did a cost comparison of the sheep vs. motorized mowing machines, and came down in favor of the sheep.   

 

By the 1930s, the day of the park sheep was almost over.  In New York City, Parks Commissioner Robert Moses had no place for the sheep in his scheme of things.  The flock was said to have deteriorated.  There was a concern that sheep would be in danger of being stolen and eaten by the poor and homeless of the Great Depression.  Moses wanted to turn the sheepfold into a moderately-priced restaurant.  The Dorsets of Central Park were sent to join the Southdowns  in Prospect Park.  Frank Hoey, the last shepherd in Manhattan, was transferred to the Central Park zoo, and retired the next year.  Eventually all the sheep were removed from Prospect Park as well. 

 

The fanciful sheepfold in Central Park became the famous Tavern On The Green Restaurant, which operated until 2009.  In 2010, it became a visitor’s center.  The name of the Sheep Meadow remained as a testimony to the long presence of the Central Park flock.  In 1979, sheep returned briefly to the Sheep Meadow, when as a publicity event in connection with the launch of a book called The Last Shepherds, a small herding trial was held.  Border Collies demonstrated their prowess, and for a brief time, bleats and baas were heard once again on the Sheep Meadow.  Today, a few sheep can still be found in Central Park -- they no longer roam their old grazing grounds, but reside in the Tisch Children’s Zoo on the eastern side of the park.

 

 

          The Sheep Meadow, 1930

File:Apríl 2004 004.jpg

          The Sheep Meadow, 2004

                                    

                                       The Central Park sheepfold today – for many years

                                   the Tavern on the Green restaurant, now a visitor’s center

 

 

  

                                       

                                          James Conway and Jack, Central Park, 1905

 

 

 

 

                                                              *****

 

 

 

 

                               City park sheep flocks were often featured on postcards.

 

Elizabeth Park, Hartford, Connecticut

 

 

Keney Park, Hartford, Connecticut

 

 

Theodore Wirth Regional Park, 

Minneapolis, MN

Genesee Valley Park, Rochester, New York

 

 

 

 Roger Williams Park, Providence, 

Rhode Island

   

 

Prospect Park, Brooklyn, NY

 

 

 

 

 

 

My thanks to Penny Tose for her assistance.

 


 

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