When John left Big Bend, putting his cowboy days behind him, he moved to Sonora with his childhood sweetheart, Virginia (the “Ginnie” of my book).
There, he began raising long-haired Angora goats, his initial herd of 1,500 growing by leaps and bounds, till the fields and hills became a sea of white. “Rancho Blanco,” he named his place—there were just that many goats!
He eventually became president of the American Angora Goat Breeders Association. By then, John Junior had joined the operation. The two were working all the livestock shows they could, Rancho Blanco turning out blue ribbon champions, earning the Wards considerable fame. They were in the right place at the right time. It was the gilded age of the American Angora goat!
Angora wool is exceptionally soft. It grows in heavy ringlets that by shearing time, completely conceal legs, hooves and eyes, making the unshorn goats resemble giant walking mops.
Like a racehorse or pedigree dog, each Ward goat was given a fancy name. The iconic image of “Diamond Lustre,” a particularly fine billy, appeared on their calling card and shipping ticket.
Goats are sheared a couple of times a year, and a single “heavy shearing” goat might yield twelve pounds of mohair.
Shearing crews, generally Mexicans, would come and camp out several days until the job was done. Two men would hold the goat down while a third man worked the shears.
They trimmed very close to the skin, since mohair was sold by the pound, so the goats would emerge looking like a GI after a buzz-cut. You could see the pinkness of their flesh. Often, they’d have a cut or two.
After the shearing, with all their warm hair gone, the goats were at risk of dying from the cold. Old-time ranchers carefully watched the weather and would not shear if it looked like it might rain.
It took weeks for the goats to grow enough hair that they could be turned back out to pasture. That’s where the goat houses came in! A goat house was a wooden box, open on one side, so the goat could come and go. Each time the wind changed direction, the houses had to be turned. And whenever a nanny goat died, a substitute had to be found, so her orphaned kid could nurse. “The whole thing was a whole lot of trouble,” John Junior is quoted as saying. This was no doubt true.
One thing most people don’t know is, Angora wool is naturally fire-resistant. You can hold a match to it and it won’t burn! There’d be no need for chemical fire retardant, if we made things out of goat wool. The United States used to pay a subsidy to wool-growers, but this ended in 1995. The last of our herd was sold off after daddy died, but I still have a banker’s box of blue ribbons the family won decades ago, plus a treasure trove of trophies. This is my legacy of goats…