When I think of a sheep and wool festival the first thing that comes to mind is the “baa, baa, black sheep” nursery rhyme. In the rhyme the question is asked if the person has any wool with the response of three bags full. Well, there were plenty of people carrying several bags full of different colored wools, most from newly sheared sheep.
The annual free festival draws over 10,000 patrons each year to the Howard County Fairgrounds. We arrived at noon to find what would have been close to a two-mile walk to the entrance. Luckily, we had a handicap sticker and were able to park a little closer to the grounds. I did notice that a couple tractors were taking people near the road to get to their cars.
If you like to feast on lamb, there is a cooking demo worth checking out. For crafters, there is a communal spin-in competition. Contests included spinning the longest yarn and spinning blindfolded. While there was a specific area for sheep shearing demonstration, visiting any of the barns would allow you to view the process. It was really neat seeing the diverse types of sheep from all over the world. I never knew the many varieties of sheep: Shetland, Leiceter, Scottish Blackface, Longwools, Katahdin, Karakul, Soay, and so on. The owners were great at educating the public about the specific breeds. Don’t expect the barns to be a petting zoo. The majority of the sheep are not used to the attention and moved away when approached by people.
I was really disappointed with the family activities tent. There was storytelling for all ages, but the rest of the activities were for ages 7 and up. Workshops included knitting, weaving, crochet, and making a bookmarker or dream catcher. There is a $5 fee and you must register in advance. In other areas there was a sheep poster and junior spinning contest. My five year old would have liked there to be more of a petting zoo or least some games or a face painter for the younger set.
Also disappointing was the lack of music. There were random groups playing on and off, none of which I could hear well when walking by. I heard the festival announcer better than the musicians.
There were hundreds, yes hundreds of vendor booths selling yarn a plenty. Fibers included hand dyed yarns, mohair, merino, cashmere, alpaca, fleece, angora, and yak in a rainbow of colors. Several stands sold wool clothing and blankets while others sold goat and sheep’s milk soap and lotion, honey, beeswax candles, jewelry, plants and sheep hand puppets. Non-vendors included a border collie rescue and information about Howard County tourism, and free lamb recipe booklets.
The best part of the festival was the working sheepdog demonstration. Presented by Mark Soper and Nancy Cox, it drew the biggest crowd of all the events. The bleachers were packed so we found a spot behind the fence and sat on the ground. I was in awe at the border collies and how they communicate not only with their owners, but also with the sheep. Some of the dogs responded to verbal commands while others steered the sheep through obstacles by the sound of a whistle. It was really funny watching some of the younger border collies want to chase after the sheep before being commanded to do so in the arena.
There are dozens of food stands all with the same usual fare of hot dogs, BBQ, kettle corn, funnel cakes and ice cream. What’s a sheep festival without gyros, lamb burgers, lamb sausage and sheep’ milk cheese. The only healthy option was a stand serving up grilled chicken pitas. While I didn’t see anyone bring their own food, no one was checking bags so I assume it is allowed. There is also a Subway down the street if you are looking for an alternative.
Things to Know
- Parking is on a flat or hilly grass surface. It is important to be there first thing in the morning or arrive in the late afternoon when some cars have left.
- Lawn chairs are welcome. There are benches, chairs and tables scattered throughout the area.
- Many concession stands and vendors do not accept credit cards. There are ATMs available throughout the grounds.
- Port-a-potties are scattered throughout the grounds, but many were out of toilet paper before midday. There are sinks operated by a pedal. There are full restrooms sans changing area in the middle of the grounds.
- Bring wipes, especially if you plan on interacting with the animals.
- The ground is flat, but some barns exit on a short, steep hill. Bring a stroller that can double as a storage system for all the goods you may want to buy.
Take advantage of the hospitality tent. We discovered this leaving the festival just past the main entrance/exit. You can help yourself to lemonade, cookies and pick up coupons off two local stores. Plus, they have a covered tent with chairs to relax as you watch an informal spinning session.
The festival is big into the sale of sheep which was obvious from all the farms represented during the competitions. It is a farmer and knitter’s paradise. It was a nice experience, but other than the sheepdog demo, it would bore young children. It was great that it was a free event and a nice way to educate people about sheep and their important role in society. In 2013, the event will be held May 4 & 5 and the festival will celebrate its 40th anniversary.