They came to herd sheep and in the process left a lasting imprint on the Gem State.
During the decades following the turn of the century, as Europe dealt with the aftermath of World War I and the rise of fascism, a wave of Basque immigrants left a 20-mile stretch of Spanish coastline along the Bay of Biscay for Idaho's Wood River Valley. At the time, the valley was second only to Sydney, Australia, in lamb meat and wool production. In Idaho, the new arrivals found work as sheepherders, one of the few occupations in which Euskara, their ancient and all-but-incomprehensible tongue, wasn't a barrier. With the company of a burro and maybe a sheepdog, Basque herders led their flocks high into the mountains each spring. They stayed until the winter snows forced them to take refuge again in the Basque-owned boardinghouses in downtown Boise.
Today, the Wood River Valley's ski resorts are far more profitable than its sheep ranches, and the few herders who remain come mostly from Argentina and speak Spanish, not Basque.
Yet the image of the lonely Basque sheepherder endures and is now celebrated every autumn in the Sun Valley area with the Trailing of the Sheep Festival. This year, the festival begins on October 8 with an evening of storytelling at the Ketchum Community Library led by John Peavey, the patriarch of the Flat Top Sheep Company, one of the region's oldest sheep ranches. The following day, the festival moves to the nearby mountain town of Hailey, the site of the Sheep Folklife Fair. Here, visitors will find sheep camps to explore and demonstrations in shearing, sheepdog herding, and wool-spinning, as well as Basque folk music and dancing and traditional Basque games like stone-lifting and wood-chopping. For dinner, enjoy a Basque-style lamb feast.
At high noon on October 10, herders from the Flat Top Sheep Company and Faulkner Land & Livestock will move their flocks from the mountains down the middle of Main Street in Ketchum for the Trailing of the Sheep Parade. Visitors are invited to walk with, or "trail," the sheep as they're driven through town on their way to lowland desert pastures for the winter. The festival concludes with a guided hike along Julio's Trail, named for a Basque sheepherder who carved his name on aspen trees on the edge of town.
To discover more about the state's Basque heritage, head to Boise. Although the last of the city's Basque boardinghouses closed in the late '60s, it is still home to the largest Basque community in North America. Plan on spending the morning on downtown Boise's Basque Block, along Grove Street. Begin at the Basque Museum and Cultural Center, the country's only Basque museum, which shares the block with a Basque social club, a fully restored Basque boardinghouse, a fronton(a Basque racquet club where a racquetball-like sport called pala is played), and a Basque bar and restaurant.
Tour the Uberuaga boardinghouse with museum executive director Patty Miller and examine the treasures of the museum's exhibit hall—a sheep camp wagon once used for wool-gathering, Basque musical instruments, and a scale model of the General Assembly building in Guernica, the Basque city immortalized by Picasso's masterwork. Then have lunch at the Bar Gernika—try the double solomo(marinated pork loin) or, on Saturday, the house specialty, beef tongue—and chat with owner Dan Ansotegui, a descendant of Basque sheepherders. Ansotegui will tell you stories and show off pictures of his grandfather, David Inchausti, on the sheep ranch where he worked, and of his other grandfather, Santiago Ansotegui, dancing while Dan's father, Domingo, plays the accordion.
And if you're interested in exploring more Basque sites along the scenic back roads between Boise and Sun Valley, pick up a copy of Nancy Zubiri's A Travel Guide to Basque America from the museum gift shop. In the process, you might be tempted buy a souvenir or two, like a "Proud to Be Basque" license-plate holder, or maybe a sheep-shaped refrigerator magnet that says—what else?—"Baa-aaa-sque is beautiful!"
Photos by Ted Katauskas and Steve Bly
This article was first published in September 1999. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.