Sheepish: What’s Old is New in Park Maintenance

Minneapolis is now in its second year of testing goats to control invasive plants, especially buckthorn, in parks. The concept may be novel, but it’s not new.

Long ago in park history, attention focused on sheep rather than goats, but you say ovine, I say hircine.  I don’t see much difference between sheep and goats to control plants; whether you ride a Toro or a Deere, the grass gets cut.

800px-Goats_on_an_Argan_(Argania_spinosa)_tree_in_Morocco

Goats eating big weeds in Wirth Park. Not really. These are tree-climbing goats in Morocco, not Minneapolis. Photo: Marco Arcangeli.

The idea of sheep in Minneapolis parks was first proposed in 1906 by recently hired park superintendent Theodore Wirth. He proposed putting sheep in what was then Glenwood Park (the park was renamed for Wirth in 1938). He wrote in the annual report that year,

“There is nothing prettier in landscape effect than a flock of sheep grazing on the meadow and hill-sides.”

Of course Theodore Wirth grew up in Switzerland, so the sight of flocks on a hillside probably stirred warm memories of childhood for him. But he also had the park example of sheep in New York’s Central Park. The huge open space today called the Sheep Meadow in Manhattan was once actually a meadow filled with sheep. Wirth was a great admirer of Frederick Law Olmsted who designed Central Park, so what was good enough for the master was good with him too.

(Keep reading, there’s lots of links to restored blog posts at the end of this goat story.)

Wirth didn’t get his sheep in 1906, but he kept on trying. In his 1911 Annual Report he again proposed putting sheep in Glenwood Park. He bolstered his argument for a pleasing visual effect by noting that a flock of sheep would keep down the weeds and greatly improve the turf and would be “nearly self-sustaining” by providing a supply of wool, lamb and mutton. No petting zoo or goat yoga for Wirth.

Undaunted by no action, he noted in his recommendations the next year that he had already prepared grounds for a sheep fold and yard next to the park-keepers house in Glenwood Park adding, “I hope that the building may be erected the coming spring and a flock of sheep acquired.” In the same report he proposed building a new zoo in Glenwood Park along “modern lines” to replace the antiquated one he had dismantled at Minnehaha Park a few years earlier. He got neither zoo nor sheep.

In his 1913 report Wirth pulled out all the stops for his sheep. In his grand plan for Glenwood Park he included a sheep fold on the far western edge of the park about equidistant from Glenwood (Wirth) Lake and Birch Pond. He went even further by providing an architectural drawing for a sheep barn. The sheep, he explained, would be the “proper lawn mowers for the large open areas” of his plan.

In the long view, Wirth’s plan for a sheep barn in the park was not the most notable feature he proposed for the park in 1913. More striking was the first plan for a golf course in a Minneapolis park. Wirth proposed to build a 12-hole course in the park not far from the private course that had been constructed in Bryn Mawr in 1898. Wirth noted that by replaying the first six holes, a full round of 18 holes could be played. Wirth explained his somewhat belated acceptance of golf as a legitimate usage of public park land by writing,

“The idea that golf is the game of the rich and idle is erroneous.”

Wirth’s plans for a golf course were implemented well before his plans for sheep in the park. The Minneapolis Park Board opened its first public golf course—nine holes at Glenwood Park—in 1916. It was an instant success and the public clamored for more. The first sheep didn’t appear in the park for another five years—and it took a natural disaster to get them there.

Wirth wrote in his 1921 Annual Report that a fire that summer had destroyed several hundred young evergreen trees that had been planted at Glenwood Park. To reduce further fire danger he had located two flocks of sheep from local farmers in the park to keep the tall weeds down so more trees wouldn’t be lost to fires. In Wirth’s eyes the experiment was a success and he repeated his plea for a sheepfold in the park and the acquisition of a small flock of sheep for the coming summer. To underscore his message, Wirth included in the annual report a full-page photo of a marvelously bearded shepherd watching his sheep munching weeds beside a road that we can imagine is Glenwood Parkway. Finally, the park commissioners agreed.

The experiment lasted just one summer. The next year, in a rare annual-report admission of failure Wirth wrote, “I am forced to admit that the results obtained from sheep pasturing at Glenwood Park have but partially met our expectations.” While the sheep did keep weeds down and provided a pleasing visual aspect in the park, Wirth noted that the abundance of food in the park prevented close grazing and “the pastured grounds presented an unkempt appearance.” He added that it was “impossible to keep the herd out of sections which we desired to keep unmolested, in order to get the effect of native flora.” His conclusion: “It appears wise to discontinue the experiment.”

Nearly 100 years later, they are back—and, I’m sure, are better targeted.

NOTE: This week I restored many old posts under the category Minneapolis Park Memory. These were entries written by readers. I’d draw particular attention to an entry by Bruce Benidt (editor of City of Parks) on Pearl Park.

Other restored posts of interest are about resources for further investigation of Minneapolis history on maps, aerial photos and digitized books on Hathitrust.org.

Another restoration involved a quote from the director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts a century ago that predicted Andy Warhol. And if you were wondering what the park board was doing in 2011, read this!

I hope you enjoy some golden oldies—and counting sheep, or meditating with goats.

David C. Smith

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2 comments so far

  1. Jonesey on

    I was really expecting this post to get my goat, Dave. But given all the good things you do with this blog, I feel quite sheepish even thinking about such wrongful reaction. Bah (think Alabamian) fur now.


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