‘Running of the Wools’ event to race sheep in downtown Washington

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Running of the Wools
Sheep race to the finish line at the Running of the Wools event on May 6, 2023. (Submitted photo)

WASHINGTON, Pa. — A flock of sheep sporting colorful jerseys will race down Main Street in downtown Washington Pennsylvania on May 4 and May 5 for the Washington Business District Authority’s second annual Running of the Wools event.

On top of the much-anticipated race, the event will feature local vendors, a breakfast crawl and sheep-based activities. The Running of the Wools event was created to highlight and celebrate the close relationship between the city of Washington and the farming and sheep industry.

“Being able to showcase that the farming industry and agriculture and the sheep industry is still very much a part of, not just our past, but also our present and future is a huge, a huge objective for this event,” said Shana Brown, director of Washington Business District Authority. “We want to show people it’s still relevant, it’s still important and it’s based on our roots and history.”

History

Sheep farming plays a huge role in southwestern Pennsylvania’s agriculture industry. In the 19th century, southwest Pennsylvania was considered an epicenter for sheep farming. By the Civil War, Washington County in particular was leading the country in wool production.

This hold on the sheep industry would eventually diminish as oil and coal production became more popular in southwestern Pennsylvania in the 20th century. However, Washington County continues to have a strong sheep farming and agriculture presence.

In 2022, Pennsylvania had a total of 3,076 sheep farms and 102,055 sheep. Washington County had the second-largest sheep farm and sheep population in Pennsylvania, only behind Lancaster County, with 135 farms and 4,491 sheep. That’s why, in part, the Washington Business District Authority created the Running of the Wools.

The idea started about three years ago when Brown was approached by Clay Kilgore, executive director of the Washington County Historical Society, who wanted to promote sheep farming by racing local sheep down Main Street, the busiest street in downtown Washington.

The pair kicked off with a Spread the Ewes fundraiser to fund the event in 2022. The fundraiser generated enough cash that they were able to put on the first Running of the Wools event in 2023. Drew Ross from Ross Farms in Washington, Pennsylvania provided his sheep as runners for the event.

Roughly 3,500 to 4,000 people turned out in downtown Washington for a chance to view one of Ross’s sheep cross the finish line in record-setting fashion.

The race

The main event of the day will be the Running of the Wools Race which will take place at 1 p.m. on May 4. This year, 20 sheep will race down Main Street in four heats of five. At 3 p.m., the finalists of each heat will race for the champion title.

All of the sheep racing in the event come from Ross Farms. Ross conditions the sheep by shaking an oat can — almost like a “starter gun” — signifying to the sheep to run toward him.

On the day of the event, he stands next to the finish line, waits for the gate to be opened and then yells a sheep call and shakes the oat can. Despite the training, the sheep can still be unpredictable and racing is trial and error.

The organizers weren’t sure about the depth perception of the sheep the first year, and whether they would view the finish line marker as the finish line or a big hole in the ground. Brown says this uncertainty led to lots of laughs during the races last year.

“We had one heat that got all the way down to the finish line and then literally stopped and would not go any further, and turned around and went back up the hill,” said Brown.

Local businesses can “buy a sheep” for the race every year and choose a creative, often funny, name. One of the winning sheep last year, from Compassionate Care Unlimited, was named bAAAd company.

A list of this year’s sheep names and companies is available on the Running of the Wools Facebook page. Additionally, guests get to vote on their favorite sheep name.

Other events

In addition to the race, other activities will take place throughout the day. The event will kick off with a breakfast crawl from 9:30 a.m. to noon where 16 local businesses will serve breakfast.

On the main stage at 10:30 a.m., there will be sheep shearing followed by a sheep-to-shawl demonstration. Little Bo Peep will also do a book reading and act out a play on the main stage.

Additionally, a host of vendors from artists to local businesses to farms will be selling an assortment of items. Brown says specifically incorporating farm vendors was in line with the goals of the event.

“Although the sheep (are) obviously the highlight of the day because of the historical roots and the races, it’s not just about the sheep, it’s about the farming industry in general,” said Brown.

On May 5, the two-day event weekend will end with a community blessing service delivered by local churches from 1- 4 p.m. underneath the pavilion in downtown Washington. All proceeds made go to fund next years Running of the Wools event, ensuring sheep will once again take to the streets of downtown Washington.

“Honestly, where else are you ever going to find sheep racing down a main street,” said Brown. “We’ve looked, it doesn’t happen anywhere else. There’s pig races, there’s wiener dog races, there’s horse races, there’s not sheep races anywhere else.”

(Liz Partsch can be reached at epartsch@farmanddairy.com or 330-337-3419.)

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1 COMMENT

  1. Excuse me but what is really going on here? This is clearly an abuse of animals running on pavement which sheep were never intended to be subjected to. It’s not funny and it’s wrong! There are plenty of ways to admire animals in their natural habitat instead of trying to show what they are capable of trying to survive and please a few citizens who have no intention of visiting a farm which is where sheep belong. I’m sorry but I’m against this and think it should stop.

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