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The life of Jim Harper-One of Willamette Valley's original farmers and OSDS member.


Below is a story written by John Harper about his father Jim Harper. Jim owned Broadmead Farms in Amity Oregon from 1949–1985. Jim was a member of OSDS and his son wrote about Jim’s sheepdog trialing in Oregon & California during his lifetime.


I was working on some broken down equipment in the shop when Harry Hawkins pulled up and motioned me over to his car. I knew the farm was for sale. But it was still a surprise when he said “Potential buyers are coming out tomorrow to look at the farm. I want you to show them around; especially the bottom ground. Show them the chain of lakes. And take them down by the river. They are looking to develop a golf course. I need this sale.” He studied me for a moment, as if confirming that I understood. I thought I detected the slightest smile play across his face as the window silently went up, and the Mercedes turned and slowly disappeared down the lane that headed up to the big house.

Several months had passed when we got word that the farm really had sold. I guess the tour worked. Of course my dad and I were worried. I hadn’t really known anything but that farm my whole life, and my father had managed the 1,500 acres that made up Broadmead Farms since 1948. Almost forty years. So it was important that we make a good impression with the new owners. And that is how it came to be that after a tour of the property with the new owners, dad decided to leave them with a lasting impression. Something the new owners would remember as they flew back across the Pacific to Tokyo.

I remember watching the spotless black stretch limo slowly pull up and stop by dad’s white clapboard house. It was show time. Reverend Yanno and Reverend Mikki got out of the car. Both men were wearing black business suits with crisp white shirts and dark ties, they were the picture of the latest Tokyo business fashion. A testament as to how important they felt this trip was to them. You couldn’t see their eyes because they were wearing dark glasses and smoking cigarettes. They smiled and seemed friendly enough. They bowed to my father and me and we shook hands and self-consciously, bowed back to them. The whole time I’m thinking that they looked more like gangsters than leaders of a church. Lest wise any church I had been to. And while dad and I didn’t know it at the time, Reverend Yano and Reverend Mikki were the leaders of a newfangled, Zen type church that believed in the saving graces of golf and real estate development. The Church of Perfect Liberty had a congregation of thousands. They seemed nice enough and they now owned the farm. This meant that they pretty much owned my dad and me too.

Broadmead Farm

“Do you want to see the sheep?” My dad asked innocently enough. Both men shook their heads ‘yes.’ This was no time to be disagreeable. The sheep were in a pasture across the road and you could see them in the distance ranging over the pasture. The field was only about 40 acres and only part of the herd was there, maybe a hundred head, but it was impressive. Dad’s sheep were always in good shape and it was a beautiful sight. A very classic rural picture that my dad had staged for just this moment.

I opened the gate and we all walked into the field. Dad looked down at Laddie (his dog) who was looking up at him in anticipation. Truth be told they had been practicing this very exercise every day for a week. Laddie and the sheep had been finely honed for this moment. Nothing left to chance. Dad sent Laddie “way by” a command to run along the fence line to the back of the pasture, and gather the herd of sheep and then “lift them” and fetch them up to us. You could see Laddie running full speed along the fence, disappearing as he crossed a ditch, pop up again as he ran past a large oak tree, and then see that the sheep were all beginning to bunch together; startled out of their afternoon stupor and grazing. Reverend Yano and Reverend Mikki both spoke to each other in Japanese and smiled towards my father and nodded their heads approvingly. My dad looked serious, intent on the job at hand. He whistled to Laddie who would run left or right depending on the tone of the command. The sheep by now were all heading towards us en-mass, all one hundred floppy heads. Laddie raced around doubling back and picking up stragglers and before very long we were surrounded by sheep. Everyone accounted for.

We made our way back to the road and stopped for a moment to look at the congregation of sheep, now bunched around the gate. Dad, Laddie and I stood studying Revered Yano and Reverend Mikki. Had it worked? Reverend Yanno and Reverend Mikki were smiling and my dad looked pleased. He slightly puffed out his chest listening to the sounds of approval coming from the new owners. Ah, sweet success. My dad was beginning to relax. Everything was going according to plan, at least my dad’s plan… .But Laddie had a plan of his own.

Realizing the gravity of the situation, and not wanting to leave anything to chance, Laddie strolled into the middle of the gathering, sat down in front of Reverend Mikki, the founder of the Church of Perfect Liberty, and stuck out his paw. Immediately all the attention left my dad and focused on Laddie. Reverend Mikki laughed and shook Laddie’s paw. He then instructed his entire retinue to follow suit. Laddie now had ten adoring fans petting him and lavishing him with adoration and approval. No longer the center of attention, my dad and I languished in obscurity, watching the disgusting display of affection being given to Laddie. The four legged egotist who had just upstaged us… . And more than likely sealed the deal.

Later that evening, after the formal meetings were over and everyone had left, dad and I were sitting at the kitchen table reflecting on the visit. A plastic Perfect Liberty statue of Reverend Mikki sat on the mantle in my dad’s living room. Dad took a sip of whisky, set the glass down and said, “You know everything was going perfectly until Laddie decided to upstage everyone. He had to be the big shot.” “Brother” he muttered under his breath slowly shaking his head. I could tell that he was secretly pleased; he just couldn’t let himself show it. Laddie even got real gravy with his kibbles that evening. Maybe the best a treat a Scottish shepherd could give a working sheep dog.

Now the truth be told Laddie and Dad had faced much tougher challenges when it came to performing in front of an audience. Granted there was a lot on the line auditioning for the new owners of Broadmead. Dad and Laddie were fighting to stay in their home and on the farm. The stakes were high, but the way they had chosen to present themselves; herding a bunch of sheep across a pasture, was nothing compared to a sheep dog trial. And Dad and Laddie were experienced trialers.

My recollection is that the biggest trial in Oregon was in Scio. Usually a few weeks before the Scio trial the Oregon shepherds would get together for several informal trials to fine tune their dogs. These informal events were held on Sundays at different pastures around the Salem area.

In those days it was just shepherds participating in trials. The old timers all had sheep. And as a side note they would only sell sheep dogs to other shepherds. My dad wouldn’t think of selling a sheepdog to someone living in a city that didn’t have sheep. That was an unwritten rule handed down from the old country.

Another unwritten rule had to do with qualifying which dogs would become sheep dogs. Border collies have always been noted for their intelligence and their willingness to work. Well there is a reason for that, and it’s not particularly pleasant but it is very practical.

A litter of puppies would be born usually in a vacant sheep jug in the barn or occasionally in the dog house with a little straw on the floor for comfort. My dad’s dogs never, ever were inside a house. And only my dad could feed, pet, or talk to them. They were his dogs delegated for working. They weren’t “pot lickers” that lay around the house licking people’s faces or sitting in someone’s lap.

After the puppies were about 3 months old dad would take them out to a field where there was a small band of sheep and would set the puppies down. Then he would watch them and study how they reacted to the sheep. If a puppy stopped playing and started looking at the sheep, or better yet started going toward the sheep, he would note that; if the puppy continued playing and ignored the sheep that was noted too, for future reference. After several trips out to the field and further study and reflection, a cutting process was made. The eager puppies with a strong eye and an interest in the sheep were kept. The puppies that spent their time playing and ignoring the sheep disappeared. They went for a ride down to the river, and they never came back. And that is why border collies are so smart and hard working. That same impartial standard of judgment has been practiced in the farms and crofts for hundreds of years.

Obviously times have changed. I will see border collies on leashes in stores and feel a certain sadness. They are as out of their environment as I sometimes feel; basically rural by nature but no longer on the land. Cut off from their generational roots and instincts, searching for something that has no name or form to herd down the aisles that have no grass or sheep, only concrete, boxes and crates. They are suffering from an identity crisis. Not quite working dogs, and not really pot lickers either.

By the mid-eighties a new kind of dog trialer was beginning to show up at the trials. Dad used to call them the “high heeled boot set.” Metaphorically, and sometimes literally, describing a more gentrified and well-heeled shepherd. These shepherds usually had only enough sheep to practice working their dogs with. Sheep and sheepdogs were a hobby rather than a full time job. “City people are just different.” Used to be a common refrain heard among old timers, but a love of sheep and dogs brought everyone, old and new, together.

Ultimately everyone was judged by the same standard. How well did your dog do herding the sheep? How was the outrun? The lift? The fetch? The drive. The shed? And the pen. Basically a dog was sent out around the edge of a field to gather and drive the sheep up to the handler, around a pen and then driven through two sets of panels and then back to an area designated by a circle. The sheep were then kept in that circle while several marked sheep were separated from the rest of the flock. Then the sheep were finally penned. Done successfully, required cooperation, and communication between the handler and the dog, and also the sheep. Sometimes a little luck was involved; as it is with many ventures.

Sheep can get used to being around dogs, and they also can get used to being herded through the panels and gates that make up a trial. During a trial, pickup loads of sheep are kept and released as needed to provide animals to work. During one memorable “practice” trial a pickup load of wild sheep was kept aside as a practical joke, and released when dad and Laddie were “on deck” for their turn at practice.

Dad and Laddie got the last laugh when they were able to successfully round up the wild sheep which, when released from the truck, jumped the fence and started to run off. They not only got the sheep back into the trial field, but were able to complete the course until it came to penning. The wild sheep just kept jumping out of the pen before dad could get the gate closed.

When he was done, dad looked over at the crew that had originally released that batch into the field. They were all laughing and waved to my father who laughed and waved back. “Bunch of wise guys.” I heard him mutter under his breath. In fact the whole crowd was laughing. It seems that the whole group had a hand in the conspiracy against Laddie and Dad. Subterfuge on a Sunday afternoon.

For a couple of years Dad and Laddie retired from trial work and Dad became a judge. That went well enough until one year there was a bit of controversy at the Scio trial. Scio was a nationally sanctioned trial, so not only were there quite a number of local handlers, there were also participants from all over the country. By that time there were a lot of hobby trialers mixing in with the old timers. The parking areas reflected this new trend with a an odd mixture of brand new Range Rovers and shiny Suburbans parked next to fifteen and twenty year old pickups badly in need of body work and a car wash. The urban hobby trialers were making inroads on the old guard shepherds. And while tweed was mixing with khaki and denim, there was always the democracy of competition, and results, that was the great equalizer, and the Sunday afternoon standard that we all lived under.

Now what I am going to describe next is being filtered through thirty five years of faulty memory and admittedly biased perception. That said … the events did happen. Just maybe not exactly as I remember them. Dad was judging when he placed someone (maybe a local shepherd) above a doctor from Ohio who had come out for the nationally sanctioned trial in Scio. Now to be fair, the doctor and his dog had done a really good job that day and maybe another judge would have placed them higher (there was a panel of three judges). The fact is that there were a couple of good dogs that day, and that is just how my dad and the other judges scored the run. I’m sure that the doctor was in the running for a National Title and every point counted to him. Unlike many of the local handlers who were just out to enjoy another Sunday with a few strangers thrown in for the competition, he was counting trial points with the idea of a national cup. And while it didn’t matter that much to the locals, it sure as hell mattered to him.

The local old timers kept their thoughts to themselves when it came to results. If you didn’t like where you were scored you could always go home and work a little harder with your dog and come back next time and score better. It was only a dog trial. Well, not so with doctor Range Rover (wish I could recall his name). He looked dad up after the event was over and let him, and anyone within earshot, which was a pretty large shot since he was yelling, know just how much my father, and the other judges lacked in judging ability. Dad certainly didn’t argue with him in front of the crowd. He took it quietly enough although you could tell he wasn’t too happy. As an aside my Dad loved poetry and “If” by Rudyard Kipling was one of his favorite poems. “If you can keep your head while all about you are losing theirs and blaming it on you” … comes to mind. Anyway Dad turned to the doctor and said in a very even voice: “Be sure and come back next year.” Dad started walking off and then turned “Come back next year.”

Now to be good at anything you’ve got to practice. It doesn’t matter what it is, practice makes perfect. Up to a degree. There’s always that ringer, or pen of wild sheep that can mess up the best of plans, or dogs that decide they are smarter than you, at some critical moment. But the best people at their chosen occupations keep their eye focused on what they can control, and they practice.

Dad and Laddie worked together all day as a matter of just doing what was required in keeping a thousand head of sheep healthy and fed on a fifteen hundred acre farm. They drove them to corrals, penned them, and moved them between fields. But even all that work isn’t the same as trial work, so dad would also spend forty minutes or so at the end of the day practicing with a small band of sheep in a smaller field-say 10 acres just working Laddie. Practicing out runs and drives. Working on communication and pace. Was Laddie listening, and more importantly did Laddie agree with the command?

To be fair, Laddie had been a state champion and he had his own ideas about how things should be handled sometimes. Occasionally I would hear Dad say under his breath “that damn Laddie thinks he knows more than I do.” And sometimes, to be fair, maybe he did. Occasionally Laddie would clearly handle things his own way, ignoring completely my Dad’s commands. Maybe he just needed to do something on his own. Sometimes for the better, and sometimes for worse Laddie would freelance. The number one cardinal sin that a sheep dog can commit is freelance. So there was that.

As the Scio trial loomed closer, a trial that my Dad had now entered as a trialer rather than a judge, he and Laddie worked harder than ever to fine tune their communication skills. To that end Dad became even more possessive and strict about anyone talking, or touching Laddie. Laddie became the singular focus of a possessive obsession with winning being the justification for the madness. He wanted Laddie’s focus solely on him, and only him. In the weeks before the big day he and Laddie worked on signals and responses, pace and strategy. It was like dad and Laddie were forming some sort of seamless communication. I could see Laddie studying dad; eagerly waiting for a command, and sometimes anticipating a command and instinctively doing what was required. By the time Scio came around Dad and Laddie were functioning as a single sheep herding unit. Moving, stopping, and anticipating a flock’s every irrational impulse with the goal of an orderly progression from one end of the field to the other.

The doctor from Ohio, I’m going to call him Bill, (honestly can’t remember if Bill was his name, or that he was a doctor) drove in in his brand new latest model Rover and nicely pressed slacks. I don’t remember much of the particulars that day other than that his dog did an outstanding job navigating the course in a steady, controlled fashion. Responding instantly to every whistle and gesture as the doctor guided his dog in response to the sheep’s every whim. The shed was perfect and the pen was good as well. You could tell that he was very satisfied as he walked off the course and settled down in a folding chair to watch the rest of the contestants which included Laddie and Dad. It was going to take a high score to best the doctor.

All I can say about Laddie and Dad’s run that day was that occasionally things just align in the universe. You hear athletes talk about flow and zone and peak performance. Call it what you like, better yet don’t call it anything, it can’t be named, but you do recognize it when you see it.

That day in Scio, it wasn’t so much what Laddie and Dad did. Most everyone completed the course, some more successively than others. It was how they did it. About half way through the fetch it became obvious to just about everyone there who knew anything about trial work, that something unusual was afoot. It was the silence. The lack of direction. Laddie was herding the sheep without any commands. Well with very few commands. Dad was patiently letting Laddie do the work and only very rarely using his long low whistle or sharp short whistle to direct him. There was such a trust in the perfection of minimalism, simplicity; that became more and more obvious as the run went on to completion. Never before had a handler been ballsy enough to just let their dog do the work without meddling, directing, or imposing. To be sure at certain critical moments Dad provided a whistle or gesture to help Laddie find his bearings, but then he would step back and just watch. Like a Zen master Dad let Laddie, the sheep, and the course exist as one free gesture which ended with a perfect shed, and pen. When they were done you could hear a light breeze in some nearby cottonwood trees and then everyone just cheered.

I’m sure that the doctor’s score and Dad’s score were equally high, maybe even a tie, that day. But no one that knew and understood herding sheep, and working with dogs, could deny that they had witnessed something so special that it was beyond numbers and boxes and scores.

Dad and Laddie got first place that day and the doctor congratulated my Dad after the ribbons were handed out. Judging by the deference he showed, some sort of lesson had been learned that would stand him in good stead in his future endeavors with shepherds and sheep dogs. My dad and Laddie never competed again at a formal sheep dog trial. Part of perfection is knowing when to stop.

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