Marylanders flock to sheep and wool festival

By Chaz Brown
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writer

An estimated 50,000 people attended last weekend’s sheep and wool festival – a 44-year-old staple among shepherds, farmers and collectors that celebrates everything from sheep and wool to unique handmade items.

The annual celebration that took place May 6 and 7 – which began in 1974 as the “sheep and wool crafts festival” with the goals of educating the public, providing entertainment and raising money for the operation to continue – included over 250 vendors, 600 sheep and 40 workshops at the Howard County Fairgrounds in West Friendship.

“I’d like to think of myself as the person with the vision,” said Gwen Handler, the festival’s chairwoman. “I’ve been watching it build and seeing new people coming in becoming friends and showing sheep together – it’s amazing.”

One of the workshops at the festival included a live demonstration of different breeds of sheep being sheared led by a shearer answering questions and engaging the audience.

Tom Conner showing off his sheep in the show room. Photo by Chaz Brown.

Emily Hickman, who is a full-time machine shearer, led the demonstration on shearing sheep in a way that allows the wool to come off in one, solid piece.

“There’s a very specific pattern we follow that was developed in New Zealand,” Hickman said. “If you follow the pattern correctly the fleece will come off in one piece like a bear skin rug.”

Hickman was introduced to shearing through 4-H and attended the Maryland Shearing School after high school. In addition to shearing thousands of sheep in Maryland and Virginia each year, Hickman teaches at shearing schools across the country and competes in competitions worldwide.

This year marked the first time the festival charged an admission fee, which was $5.  Previous years’ festivals were supported by volunteers.

“We hate to do it,” Handler said. “Our budget is so huge we just can’t do it any other way.”

According to Handler, the operating costs of the festival have grown so much that the admission fee was the only way to offset some of the work by their volunteers. Part of the money received from ticket sales this year will go toward providing more tents for vendors.

Among the many vendors were Francis and Diane Chester, who make and sell wool products. They started their business, Cestari Sheep & Wool Company, in Georgia in 1946 and have participated in every sheep and wool festival since its inception.

Francis Chester started his business at the age of 10 with a small stand that sold wool products. Using the money he made from the stand, he was able to pay for his college education, including law school.

“I’ve always wanted to be a farmer and I’m so pleased that I ultimately became that,” Francis Chester said.

One of the many sheep at the Sheep and Wool Festival on May 6 and 7. Photo by Chaz Brown.

One of the many sheep at the Sheep and Wool Festival on May 6 and 7. Photo by Chaz Brown.

Tom Conner, a ninth-generation shepherd, said he has participated in the festival every year by bringing his own sheep and shearing them at the festival. Conner reported that his kids are continuing the family tradition.

“I’ve been a farmer all my life and seeing my kids do it gets me all choked up,” Conner said.

Not all the vendors were related to sheep and wool, however.

John Switzenberg, who makes and sells cinnamon-scented beeswax ornaments, was among many vendors selling unique handmade items.

“I inherited chocolate molds from my great grandfather,” Switzenberg said. “I make my own cinnamon scented beeswax and put them right in the chocolate molds.”

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