The sight of rented goats munching and clearing foliage is an uncommon but not unexpected sight in Thurston County. One hundred years ago, however, in the spring and summer of 1918, visitors to the Washington State Capitol Campus would have been greeted by a far more unusual sight – a herd of sheep grazing on the grounds.
The sheep were part of a Red Cross fundraiser dreamed up by State Commissioner of Agriculture Edwin F. Benson (in office 1917-1920). A sheep farmer, he donated two ewes, each with their two lambs, from his ranch in Prosser to the Olympia Red Cross. The idea of publically grazing sheep during World War I was not unique, and in May 1918 President Wilson put a herd on the White House lawn that eventually grew to 48 sheep.
Benson hoped the sheep project would publicize the wartime Red Cross wool and knitting programs as well as the United States Food Administration’s increased food production campaigns. He even urged people throughout the state to graze sheep on their lawns and in city parks. To encourage this, he wanted to place sheep in one of the most public parts of Olympia, near the State Capitol. It was not the Capitol we have today, but the building located on Washington Street that is now known as the Old State Capitol, currently the home of the Superintendent of Public Instruction. The Old State Capitol is adjacent to present-day Sylvester Park. In 1918, Sylvester Park was part of the Capitol campus and called Capitol Park.
On January 29, 1918, Benson formally requested the state board of control to allow the sheep. The board approved the next day. Benson even planned on keeping a record of costs, hoping to prove that having sheep would be cheaper than hiring men to mow. He planned on selling the sheep’s wool (and maybe the sheep) to benefit the Red Cross at the end of the season. He even considered keeping them to graze on campus in 1919.
The manual training classes of city schools, including Olympia High School, made two movable screen pens to contain the sheep. Each ewe and her two lambs would be in each pen. Benson moved the pens around the parking strips twice a day. They did not graze in the park itself.
The sheep were a big hit when they debuted along Washington Street on the afternoon of May 9, attracting a large crowd of curious onlookers. “How funny!” one woman was quoted as remarking by the “Olympia Daily Recorder” newspaper the next day. “And,” the paper added, “from the inroads they made on the small strip of grass, it is evident that the flavor of the Olympia grass meets their approval.”
Things went well until it started to rain and Benson received an avalanche of calls and letters accusing him of animal cruelty and giving him advice on how to better care for the sheep. Lieutenant Governor Louis F. Hart ordered umbrellas for the animals.
Many people loved the sheep. The mothers were named Mary and Maude. Their lambs were named Lizzie, Lottie, Timothy and Titus. Local newspapers received sheep poems, but they did not print them. Others objected to the constant noise the sheep made. A group of sixteen state employees signed a carefully worded petition which was quoted in the July 19, 1918, “Olympia Daily Recorder”:
“We, the undersigned, most respectfully request that for the sake of suffering humanity you find some other place in which to place those musical sheep – by doing this you will save the state the expense of feeding new borders at Steilacoom [the state mental hospital]. We do not begrudge them the grass they eat, but we do object to the accompaniment that goes with the same. These sentiments are concurred in by numerous others who do not care to have their names appear in print.”
To protest too much could be seen as unpatriotic. Benson blamed children for causing much of the noise by feeding the sheep cake, popcorn, and cookies. This was unhealthy for the sheep, who now begged passersby for food. In response to the petition, Benson promised he would soon sell some of the sheep to benefit the Red Cross. By mid-July, the grass was getting too dry on the campus for them to graze anyway. Benson called for bids on July 21, preferring to sell the sheep to farmers who would continue to raise them.
The bids did not work out, and the lambs were sold by raffle at a carnival held by the Elks from August 6 – 10. The total raffle netted $475. Fannie Rosenthal won Titus, and immediately gave him back to the Red Cross to be resold, the proceeds going to the surgical dressings department. Another sheep went to a family whose children wanted it as a pet.
Sheep are no longer legal within city limits. While the animals were only a small part of the war effort, they did make a noticeable statement. Few people could have missed them when going past the Capitol Campus. They were part of a larger effort on the American homefront to support the war effort.