Saturday, November 3, 2012

A piece of western history rolls into Winthrop

Kim Kenney at home in Winthrop with his new, historic sheep camp.

(This story originally appeared in the Sept. 5 issue of The Methow Valley News.)

Maybe it’s memories of a childhood running around the high desert of northern Nevada. Maybe it’s the photos and stories of his grandfather’s sheep camp in the Colorado mountains. Perhaps it’s the urge to cleanse himself of a life of extravagance and corporate excess.

It is most likely all of these factors, combined with an inquisitive mind and love of western history, that drove Kim Kenney on a quest for his very own bona fide sheep camp - a portable home that in this case can be dated back to 1932, according to its new owner.

Kenney returned to Winthrop recently after a five-day, 960-mile journey to Kinnear, Wyo. to purchase the sheep camp, stopping over in Sheridan to pick up a canvas range tent on the way.

“It’s called a sheep camp [not camper or trailer] because everything a sheep herder needed for summer on the range would have been inside,” Kenney said.
He had been looking for a sheep camp for a long time, he said, and finally found his after a worldwide search on craigslist.
Upon meeting the camp’s prior owner, Matt Gustin, in Wyoming, Kenney realized he had known Gustin's mother, Ann, when they were children at a one-room schoolhouse of 18 pupils in Denio, Nev., around 1960.
“How strange is it that after childhood in the middle of nowhere, we meet up again in Wyoming because of an old sheep camp,” he marveled.
A range tent would have been part of any working sheep camp. 
Still a working camp
Both Gustin, who had owned the camp for three years, and the original owners had been “interested in maintaining the heritage of this vehicle,” Kenney said.
It was “a working camp” on the Lazy H X-Bar Ranch near Sheridan Wyo., until being sold in an estate auction three years ago, Kenney said. The camp was listed on estate sale documents at the time, but unavailable for viewing because it was still in use up on the range, he added.
Based on his research on sheep camps and how they were used around the west, Kenney believes that it - along with a commissary wagon loaded with supplies - would have been towed into the high country every summer to provide mobile housing for a sheepherder, probably of Basque origin.
Kenney carries a circa 1900 photograph of his own grandfather’s horse-drawn sheep wagon, “the original recreational vehicle,” he quipped.
His grandfather, Ira Wood, was “steeped in sheep culture,” that the family had brought with them from England, Kenney said. Grandfather Wood homesteaded near Craig, Colo., and left his wife and three children most of every summer to herd sheep in the mountains. “It was a rough way to make a living.” 
Kenney’s camp has the loaf-shaped domed roof and white exterior that is standard for what he calls “the second generation” of camps that were built after the turn of the century. It is not plumbed or wired, but has a two-burner cast iron wood stove that provides both heat and a cooking surface.
Knotty pine and a ranch brand add to the camp's aura of history.            
The interior is completely finished in wood, with ample windows and a skylight to brighten the space.
The camp is loaded with built-in drawers and cabinets for storage. A platform bed - spread with a woven wool blanket from Methow Valley Woolens - is marked with the Lazy H X-Bar brand; beneath the bed is a slide-out table, more storage, and an emergency exit hatch in case of fire.
Kenney plans to do some work on the camp, including putting vintage Model A wheels on the single axle, replacing the modern plastic skylight with one of glass, and retrimming the exterior with scrap barn wood offered to him from the Shafer Museum.
Essentially, he said, the camp is “in perfect working order” and “towed beautifully at 60 miles per hour” behind his pickup from Wyoming to Winthrop.
The single-axle trailer was a big selling point for Kenney because many of the classic sheep camps on the market still come with four wheels - wagon style - and “wag if you go down the road very fast. It’s hard to find one that can be trailered at highway speed,” he said.

A different life            
The sheep camp attracts a crowd wherever he takes it, said Kenney. “I knew it would be an item of interest to people, but it’s really more than I expected,” he added.
On the trip home from Wyoming, Kenney found himself camped among million-dollar RVs at Yellowstone National Park. “Somebody [from one of those RVs] said, ‘I think you are having more fun than we are,’” he recalls.
Kenney, whose handlebar mustache and broad straw hat belie his “former life of extraordinary opulence,” said that purchasing the sheep camp is part of a new focus on the non-material, spiritual meaning of life.
He moved to Winthrop eight years ago to become the full-time caregiver of his parents, Mary and Frank Kenney.
Before that he had a varied career, investigating waste, fraud and abuse at the Seattle office of the U.S. Government Accountability Office during the Reagan administration; as a CPA at Price Waterhouse; as a management consultant under three different Washington governors; and working for Craig McCaw - the Seattle-based cellular telephone pioneer - who sent Kenney to Bogotá, Colombia in the early 1990s to provide expertise to billionaire Julio Mario Santo Domingo and set up the Celumóvil company.
During his time in Colombia he got to know many powerful people including the Colombian president, and Ingrid Betancourt, the high-profile presidential candidate who was held captive by the FARC for over six years. The U.S. State Department advised Kenney “not to get taken,” he said.
“I had a penthouse apartment, armed drivers, helicopter transport, private jets - I was treated like a prince,” said Kenney of his time in Bogotá. “After years of living that way, I decided it wasn’t all that fulfilling.”
Having “made the decision to scrap that life,” Kenney has been shedding material and spiritual burdens in Winthrop while “developing a sense of humor” and perspective around caring for his aging parents.
“I have gotten to enjoy the fine things in life,” Kenney said. “I no longer want to have my life revolving around material possessions. If I have nothing left but this sheep camp in my elder years, I’ll be completely happy.”

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