An hour and 40 minutes into the cracked high desert northeast of Bend, eight miles past the barely recognizable "town" of Antelope, sits the Imperial Stock Ranch, surrounded by chapped canyon landscape, rife with tumbleweeds.
A century ago, this was a bustling center of commerce. At its core was Imperial Stock Ranch, established in 1871 by 19-year-old Richard Hinton, a jaded farmer and hopeful stockman who was born in an ox cart on the Oregon Trail. The 160-acre homestead became Oregon's largest land and stock claim, and quickly developed into one of the principal sheep ranches in the nation, winning the small town of Shaniko the nickname "wool capital of the world."
By 1901, Shaniko's wool warehouse was producing about a ton daily. The ranching empire grew to be home to 85,000 head of sheep that roamed seven counties, from north of Shaniko to south of La Pine, on property owned or leased by Imperial.
But then the Wild West evolved, and the ranch lost its relevance and dominance.
Flash forward 100 years: Shaniko is now nicknamed "Oregon's best-known ghost town."
But there is still a heartbeat, and next weekend Shaniko will turn into a bustling yarn-based party. Ranch owners Jeanne and Dan Carver take pride in the Luddite authenticity of their homestead—it remains a fully functioning sheep and cattle ranch, and a flashback to another era. But in recent years, the Carvers have had to make adjustments to keep the business afloat in a modern economy. In the process, they have resurrected the concept of face-to-face commerce and community.
"In 1999 we called the wool buyer that we sold to for 100 years and they said, 'We're not buying,' " Jeanne Carver recalled, explaining that, as a result of offshore outsourcing, the only remaining regional wool buyer had closed its facilities. "We wanted to find a way to keep sheep viable," Carver added.
Enter direct marketing. The Carvers have found that cutting out the middleman is the way to sustain the 30,000-acre-ranch. When their last wool buyer turned them down, the Carvers found the means to clean, spin and turn wool to yarn without a major manufacturer. The ranch sold the yarn directly to retailers (like Gossamer in Bend) and partnered with local artisans and apparel designers to create the first Imperial knit garments.
"You see it in food today. People are connecting with the local source," Carver said. "It's a natural thing for us; we never thought any different. Whether you drink it in wine or eat it in food or spin it and have fiber, it's the process of working locally and regionally—strengthening community."
Imperial is one of the few yarn companies in America that owns the yarn from soil to finished product—an accomplishment the Carvers take pride in.
In 2004, a national clothing retailer, Norm Thompson Outfitters, picked up the knit line. Sustainable Portland fashion designer Anna Cohen attached herself to the product, leading to Imperial garments headlining the runway at Portland fashion week in 2009 and 2011.
That success drew the attention of Vogue Knitting (yes, that's a real magazine), and this weekend Imperial will host the second year of the Vogue Knitting LIVE! Destination Experience, a unique and exclusive weekend filled with workshops with knitwear designer and best-selling author Nicky Epstein, a menu planned and executed by James Beard Award-winning chef Mark Hosack of Gracie's at the Hotel deLuxe in Portland, and, of course, freshly spun Imperial yarn.
"Think about the timelessness of this," Carver said. "Wool was king in the eighteen and nineteen hundreds. Sir Edmond Hillary climbed the first ascent of Everest wearing wool. Wool money built the house I'm standing in. Wool is still the standard. We've overcome the loss of markets, and we've given this house new life." SW