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Scholtens have clippers, will travel to shear

By By Renae B. Vander Schaaf

Date Modified: 03/05/2013 9:18 AM

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MAURICE, Iowa — Marv Scholten's boys, George, Joel and David, are continuing a profession their grandfather, John Scholten, began in 1932. They shear sheep.

John Scholten started with hand-shearing equipment, which was replaced by gasoline engines through the early 1940s. When electricity came to rural America, clippers were powered by a drop shaft, gear-driven electric motor.

"Dad bought the parts," said Marv Scholten. "He built his own machine. He made the equipment durable, but lightweight. It had to be as he traveled a five-state region -- Iowa, Minnesota, Nebraska, South Dakota and North Dakota."

Scholten has sheared sheep with his father and then with his sons.

"My dad was a skilled craftsman, taking pride in what he did. He was dexterous, quite limber and fluid in his movements," Scholten said. "No matter how many sheep or hot the day, it was hard to break him into a sweat. Even into his 60s, he would often earn the top-man prize."

Scholten grew up watching his dad. He started helping on Saturdays at age 6. He stomped fleeces down in the wool sack. The sacks hung from a hook in the barn so he needed a ladder to get the job done.

Sheep were raised on far more farms in the 1940s than now. In the 1940s, wool was used for uniforms and by airplane pilots as an insulating material and fire-retardant.

When the war ended, the lamb market crashed, and U.S. producers suffered. Secretary of Agriculture Ezra Taft Benson, under then-President Dwight Eisenhower, created a wool subsidy.

"It made a difference," said Scholten. "There was no inflation in the 1950s, so a producer could figure he would profit $1.50 per head on fattening lambs. Add the subsidy for wool, and he earned another $3 to $4."

Scholten became the wrangler on his father's shearing crew on Saturdays. He caught lambs, set them up for shearing and earned five cents a head.

"At 18, I felt big and strong; I knew the work of a sheep shearer," said Scholten. "I also figured if could shear 50 ewes a day at 60 cents a head, I would earn $30 or $100 a week. The average wage was more like $70-$80 back then."

His parents didn't approve of his choice of vocation.

"Marv's parents even talked to my parents to join in their efforts to discourage him from being a sheep shearer," said Alida, his wife. "But he wanted to follow in his dad's footsteps. He tried other work. Finally, his dad added him to the crew."

Their work took them out to Kimball, S.D. Mid-May was shearing time on western ranches. Four different crews would stay in the Kimball House Hotel.

Known as the Iowan crew, they were handed a list of the ranches assigned to them. Breakfast, dinner and supper were supplied by the ranchers.

Scholten said they could usually look at a group of lambs and estimate within 10 head how many they could shear that day. The tally was kept on a bale counter. Mini-competitions were held within the crew or with other crews. Some competitions ended in fistfights, but most were friendly.

Scholten was a bonded wool buyer. He employed the Australian sheep shearing method of keeping the fleece in one piece. He did raise sheep himself, and three of his sons are still in the business.

He has sheared sheep for 40 years. He estimates that he has shorn 682,000 sheep. Some years he would average 35,000 head.

"It has been good," said Scholten. "I wanted to shear sheep so I did, that is the way it should be. A man should enjoy his work. I enjoyed being on farms, working at earning the farmer's respect for a job done right."