This is an archived article that was published on sltrib.com in 2006, and information in the article may be outdated. It is provided only for personal research purposes and may not be reprinted.
Correction: A report in Saturday's Tribune about a sheepherders' gathering incorrectly identified Van Warnick as Jay Warnick.
BAKER, Nev. - Horses and cattle helped build the West, but here on the Utah-Nevada border, sheep kept Denys Koyle's inn afloat.
In the winter, when few motorists made the lonely trek through Utah and Nevada on U.S. Highway 50 and U.S. Highway 6, sheepherders tending flocks in the desert would stop at Koyle's Border Inn for a beer, hamburger or shower. Twenty-nine years after she opened her now-landmark filling station, lodge, bar and grill that straddles two states, sheepherders and former sheepherders have begun flocking back to the Border Inn every January.
This year's flock arrived Friday for Koyle's third annual "Old Sheepherders' Party" - Koyle's way of showing her appreciation to the sheep men and families.
"It's a thank you for the business is how it started," Koyle said. "Now it's taken on a life of its own."
About 100 people, most of them from Utah and most of them senior citizens, attended Friday's party. Old men in baseball caps or cowboy hats who once cared for sheep grazing the winter-time desert filled the inn's restaurant and spilled into a covered patio outside. They brought their wives and grown children to the party, too.
Some herders were old friends who caught up on their lives and shared stories about the days when they and their families lived in wagons that traveled with the sheep.
"This is the only place in the desert we could call our families or have a good meal," said Francisco Colqui, a 54-year-old Hinckley resident who herded sheep in the 1970s and visited the inn a couple Saturday nights every winter. In the spring Colqui and other herders would move their flocks to less-arid pastures in places such as northern Utah or Wyoming.
Koyle said she intended only to have one sheepherders party, but as festivities were ending that first year, people kept asking her, "You're going to do this again next year, right."
The party grew to include people who worked as sheepherders decades before Koyle purchased the inn in 1976 as well as people who worked elsewhere in the sheep industry.
"I miss all those old people. I miss the old ones and the young ones, too," said Van Warnick, 81, of Delta, who used to work for the Utah Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service trapping the coyotes and mountain lions that preyed on livestock.
Attendees began arriving about noon and by the late afternoon the inn's lounge was filled with conversation and the occasional ring or ding from a slot machine. Some guests provided oral histories that were being recorded by the Great Basin Heritage Area. The inn served the free lamb dinner at 5:30 then opened a microphone so people could tell stories about their time in the sheep business.
Koyle's parties have occurred as sheep production in Utah is on what some in the industry has described as its last gasp. Utah had about 590,000 sheep in 1976 and had about 270,000 sheep in 2005. Nevada hasn't fared better, with 70,000 sheep in 2005, about 45 percent of what it had in 1976. Foreign competition and a move toward synthetic fabrics have hurt American lamb and wool prices over the years and encouraged many people to find other work.
"One man takes care of 10,000 sheep in New Zealand," said Bruce Nielson, a livestock broker from Richfield who attended the party. "Do you know how many people it takes to care for 10,000 sheep in the United States?"
Fewer sheep has had an impact on Koyle. She said her inn routinely loses money the first three months of the year, and 2006 is off to a "horrendous" start, in part because there are fewer sheepherders. And so Koyle called her party bittersweet.
"Ten or 15 years from now, there may not be a sheepherder in Utah," she said.