Even if they may be outstanding in their fields, farmers often get caught up in bubbles. A while back, we talked about mulberry mania, which swept the nation in the 1830s. A decade or so earlier, Vermont – and much of the rest of the nation – was swept with Merino mania.
Bubbles always start with a reasonable premise. In the South Seas bubble, it was the prospect of riches from the New World. In the mulberry mania, it was the opportunity to make silk from a new breed of mulberry tree – and silkworms, of course. With Merino Mania, it was new breed of sheep for the New World, and exceptionally testy relations with the British Empire that sparked the boom.
Merino sheep have exceptionally fine wool, and the Spanish had a monopoly on merinos: Exporting them was illegal, and the Spanish kept strict watch over them. In 1811, however, Napoleon invaded Spain, and the Spanish took their eyes off the wool. An American diplomat, William Jarvis, took advantage of the situation and sent nearly 16,000 Merino sheep to the U.S.
According to the New England Historical Society:
“In 1811, Jarvis bought an estate in Weathersfield, Vt., near his relatives in Claremont, N.H. He brought thousands of sheep, along with Spanish shepherds and dogs to tend them. He evolved into a zealot for the merino sheep, giving speeches, lending money to farmers who wanted to raise them and buying an interest in a woolen mill in Quechee, Vt.”
Jarvis was lucky. First, Americans were terrible at raising sheep, at least any breed that produced good wool. Second, Americans were feuding with Great Britain. Thanks to the Embargo Act of 1807 and the Nonintercourse Act of 1809, American wool factories could no longer buy wool from Britain.
Again, from the New England Historical Society:
“Merino mania then seized Northern New England, especially Vermont. Textile manufacturers paid farmers $2.00 for a pound of merino wool, while common wool sold for 37.5 cents a pound. Common sheep sold for $2, while Merino rams sold for as much as $1,500 each.” Weathersfield, Jarvis’ hometown, became one of the wealthiest towns in New England.
After the War of 1812, relations with Britain gradually improved, the number of Merino sheep increased, and Merino prices were shorn from $1,500 apiece to about $50. The number of sheep in Vermont fell from 4 million in 1840 to 2 million by 1860. Prices popped again during the Civil War, but Weathersfield eventually sank back to obscurity. It now has a population of fewer than 2,000 souls.
As a side note, Weathersfield gets its name from the English word “wether” meaning “castrated lamb.” Wethers were trained to lead sheep to pasture, and shepherds often tied a bell to them – hence the word “bellwether.”