‘Running of the Wools’ celebrates local sheep farming and centuries-old Ross Farms

Running of the Wools
Sheep race down Main Street at the Running of the Wools event on May 4, 2024. (Liz Partsch photo)

WASHINGTON, Pa. — The weather was dreary and damp, but all along the side of the racetrack stood eager onlookers waiting for the big event of the day. Suddenly, a man yelled through a bullhorn, the starting line gate opened and out came the first heat of sheep racing to a sweet treat at the end of the street: ears of corn.

The second annual Running of the Wools event took place on May 4 in downtown Washington, Pennsylvania. The sheep track stars are from Ross Farms, owned by sixth-generation sheep farmer Drew Ross.

Ross’s family farm has been raising sheep for roughly 300 years, more than 100 of those in Washington County. The annual event is a way to celebrate the past and present sheep farming community in the Washington area.

“We’ve been sheep farmers (for centuries), and I hope that 300 years down the road we are still sheep farmers,” Ross said. “I want to share (with) everybody my family history, my passion for agriculture (and) this was one of the best ways to do it.”

Drew Ross
(From left to right) Drew Ross and Melinda Wamsley stand next to a sheep at the Running of the Wools event on May 4, 2024. (Liz Partsch photo)

Ross Farms

When Ross was first approached with the idea to use his sheep for a race in downtown Washington, he thought it was crazy. But, upon second thought, he realized it would be a great way to educate people.

“One of the main reasons we do this is Washington County has this huge sheep and wool history, and most of the people have never really seen a sheep,” Ross said.

He adds many people don’t know the difference between a sheep or goat; the event seeks to clarify this among other sheep information.

The Ross family has a long history of raising sheep. Before immigrating to the United States in 1746, the Rosses were sheep farmers in Scotland. The Rosses bought their farm in Washington County in 1892 and in 1910, they created what resembled a farmstead with cattle, sheep and hogs.

“It was that turn of the century agriculture where they had everything because they were still feeding their community before agriculture was specialized,” Ross said.

The farm became a sheep operation exclusively in the 1960s. Today, the Rosses farm about 250 acres where they raise sheep for meat and wool production and grow hay. They started manufacturing wool in 2008, when Ross’s mother took over the farm.

Ross Farms raises a mix of commercial and heritage breed sheep. One of the heritage breeds they raise is Hog Island sheep. Currently, there are less than 200 Hog Island sheep in the world and the Livestock Conservancy lists them as “critical” on its conservation priority list. Ross says raising heritage sheep is in line with Ross Farm’s mission.

“Our tagline on the farm is preserving our culture’s past and its future,” he said.

Running of the Wools
The racetrack of the Running of the Wools event runs down Main Street on May 4, 2024. (Liz Partsch photo)

The event

The name for the “Running of the Wools” event was a play on the famous Running of the Bulls event held every year in Pamplona, Spain. The Washington Business District Authority started to raise money for the event with a “Spread the Ewes” fundraiser in 2022.

During this time, Ross had several friends question his participation in the event and how many people would actually be interested.

“All my friends in the industry (said), ‘We’re not gonna go to that.’ I (said), ‘That’s fine because it’s not aimed at you,’” Ross said. “It’s aimed at the consumer. These people have never seen a sheep; they’ve never seen a sheep be shorn.”

A sheep shearing demonstration by Melinda Wamsley from Boss Mare Shearing was featured at this year’s event on the main stage. Afterward, participants got to come up to the stage to ask questions and feel the freshly shorn wool.

Brian Danna lives in Washington County and attended the Running of the Wools event last year. He grew up on a farm and knows how to shear a sheep, but he says for others its a real benefit to see it live.

“I saw that growing up, but it is cool that other people get to see that kind of thing,” said Danna.

Other activities at the event included sheep-to-shawl demonstrations, a storytime with Little Bo Beep and local food, farm and craft vendors, including a host of wool vendors like Ross Farms.

The race

The first four heats of races kicked off at 1 p.m., with 15-minute intervals in between each heat. The sheep start in a trailer and move behind the start line gate when their heat is up. Once the gate opens, they race down the street to the finish line and into a holding pen filled with hay and ears of corn.

The sheep breeds running in the race included North Country Cheviots, Shetlands, Jacobs, Hog Islands and Scottish Blackface.

Ross doesn’t do much to train his sheep for the race. The Ross Farm staff have a feed bucket on hand in case the sheep need some incentive, but “surprisingly, some of the girls see that open trailer down there and that’s the only place they ever want to go,” Ross said.

The first two heats of the race were a little rough, as the sheep stopped right before the finish line. However, Ross and event organizer Shana Brown were quickly able to identify the problem: a little boy ringing a cowbell near the finish line. After that, the races were smooth sailing.

Brown, who is also the director of the Washington Business District Authority, says oftentimes the first few races are trial and error because they aren’t able to do a trial run. Before the race last year, a sheep tried to jump the fence. This year, Ross Farm staff were posted next to the gates to ensure no sheep tried to escape.

At 2:30 p.m. the Battle of the BAAAAnks commenced, where the local banks competed for a spot in the championship race at 3 p.m.

Last year’s event had a strong turnout, but this year’s championship race brought out even more people despite the weather, Brown said. The champion sheep of the day was Care-wool DeAngelo owned by The Observer-Reporter.

Participants also voted on their favorite names of the sheep. The first-place winner was Wool I. Am. owned by the Washington Automall’s organization Driven by Hope and the second-place winner was President Woolsevelt owned by Washington and Jefferson College.

For Ross, the event is an opportunity to share the history of his family’s farm, but, even more than that, it is about bringing awareness to the sheep farming community in Washington County as a whole.

“A lot of the farming population is aging, a lot of them don’t have the spry … to go do something like this and handle it. If I didn’t do it, who would? I don’t want the industry to be forgotten about,” Ross said.

(Reporter Liz Partsch can be reached at epartsch@farmanddairy.com or 800-837-3419.)

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