Every time you wear your merino wool sweater, you become part of the historical chain of merino wool enthusiasts. These enthusiasts include the Bourbon Kings of Spain and France and Thomas Jefferson in America. The herd of merino sheep at Winterthur’s Negendank Barn at the estate’s entrance are owned by Greenbank Mill, which operates a successful heritage breeding program. Winterthur has been a locus of experimental breeding, done in the interest of improving local and national stock, since 1810. In that year, E. I. du Pont purchased the first piece of land that would later form into the Winterthur estate. Du Pont bought the land for his herd of merino sheep and named it Merino Farm. Du Pont was the owner of a ram called Don Pedro, one of the first full-blooded merino ram in America. James Mease’s Archives of Useful Knowledge (Philadelphia, 1811) uses an engraving of Don Pedro as a frontispiece.
Spain had held tight control of the merino breed, considered the finest wool, until 1786. In that year, the Spanish king sent a herd of merinos to his cousin the French king to help improve the French sheep stock. The herd went to Louis XVI’s Royal Farm at Rambouillet outside Paris, which was established to improve French agriculture and husbandry. Don Pedro came from Ramboillet to the United States in 1801 through the du Pont family’s influence. Merino sheep were part of a wider movement to improve the state of American livestock so that they could better compete with the international wool market. When Don Pedro died in 1811, Thomas Jefferson, who also speculated in merinos, sent a letter of condolence to the du Ponts. The family was so fond of Don Pedro that Charles Dalmas, E. I. du Pont’s brother-in-law, carved a commemorative wooden statue of him, using his horns. The statue, now at Hagley Museum & Library, was exhibited at the 1876 Philadelphia Exhibition.
By 1812, the herd sired by Don Pedro, intended to grow up to 800 head, was considered one of the largest and best flock of sheep in Delaware. E. I. du Pont allowed local farmers to breed their stock with his merinos for free, so that the local wool industry would benefit. The wool from merinos was milled at the du Pont wool mill.
Next week’s Wednesdays at Winterthur puts the sheep at center stage. Please join Jessica Shahan, Greenbank Mill’s livestock program coordinator, to learn about the history of this fascinating, rare breed and to meet the sheep up close! July 3, 11:30 am, Brown Horticulture Learning Center. For more information, please visit winterthur.org/Wednesdays.
Post by Maggie Lidz, Estate Historian and Garden Objects Curator