Colonial Williamsburg's livestock program

From lambs to chickens, Elaine Shirley, manager of rare breeds, spends her day in animal husbandry.


Lloyd Dobyns: Hi. Welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. The stuff is new, and you won’t hear it anyplace else. What we want to do at first is get you “Behind the Scenes” and let you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and mostly I ask questions. This time, I’m asking Elaine Shirley, who is with the coach and livestock department and is described to me as a livestock husbander. What does a livestock husbander do?

Elaine Shirley: A livestock husbander takes care of livestock. The term “husbandry” means “the care of” or “the feeding of,” so I take care of the livestock – sheep, cattle and poultry. Certainly in the 18th century, that term would have included horses and pigs.

We have a whole group who work with me who take care of the horses, because that is a very a specialized area. We actually don’t have pigs, partly because in the 18th century, they were not allowed in the city limits of Williamsburg.

Lloyd: That’s snobbish.

Elaine: (Laughs.) Well, no, it’s not snobbish at all. Pigs can be quite messy, and there are good reasons that there are rules against having them in the city limits.

Lloyd: I saw some pigs in China, and the guy was inordinately proud of them because they kept their pen so nice and you are telling me no, not so?

Elaine: No. Well, it depends upon the husbandry that you take in taking care of them.

Lloyd: You were moving something this morning that I never quite got to...

Elaine: Right, a big part of my job is making sure the animals have enough to eat, and part of that involves moving them around. The reason I was a little late was we were moving rams, which are adult males. We pull up our modern trailer, and they know there is food on the trailer, so most of the time everybody jumps on the trailer and then we can take them where we want to go. They were very cooperative, it just happened to be at the wrong time for the interview. (Chuckles.)

Lloyd: Okay, you've got these animals. They have to be like the 18th century. I mean you would have seen them in the 18th century doing what they are doing now. Can people pet them or go up to them, or would you?

Elaine: Well, it's probably best not to pet them, because in actuality they are not pets, they are working animals; so we tell folks to enjoy them, and we are happy to talk to folks about them, but it is generally best not to pet them.

Lloyd: I was just thinking if you were moving rams around that would be a “baaaaaad” idea.

Elaine: Right, and that is one reason we discourage petting is that some of the male animals in particular can be mean, and they can hurt you, so it's is always best to give them their distance.

Lloyd: Did you say fowl? Do you take care of chickens and such?

Elaine: We do. We have chickens and pigeons currently. In the 18th Century we would have seen turkeys and geese, ducks, and doves as well, but at the moment we have chickens and pigeons.

Lloyd: Were doves eaten?

Elaine: Yes, yes, doves and pigeons are delicious actually. They’re called…

Lloyd: (Interrupts.) I’m sorry you told me that.

Elaine: (Laughs.) They are called squab; and that is a young pigeon or a young dove.

Lloyd: People in the 18th century…that was a regular sort of event?

Elaine: Well you have some wild birds. Obviously the passenger pigeon was still here in the 18th century, and so you certainly could have either shot those birds, or if you knew where the nests were, the ideal thing is to capture the young just before they learn to fly, because they are very, very tender at that point. But we do know that people also kept captive pigeons and doves just like we keep sheep, and chickens, and turkeys.

They had their own houses, they would live in the houses; they produce offspring, we eat the offspring; they come home, the kids are gone, they lay some more eggs, so they produce more offspring. They are actually extremely efficient.

Pigeons are kind of neat because they are equal opportunity parents. The males sit on the eggs half the time; the females sit on the eggs half the time. And pigeons feed their young with something called pigeon milk. It is a secretion they make in their throat. And again, the males feed the young, as do the females.

Lloyd: You’ve ruined my whole idea of pigeons.

Elaine: I know. A lot of people think of pigeons as awful, awful birds. Once you really start getting into them, they are fascinating. One of the neatest things you can do is go to a poultry show, or even just a pigeon show.

You would be amazed at the colors and the sizes and the feather patterns. There are pigeons that are as big as chickens, called Romans, and then there are little tiny pigeons called Figuritas. There are pigeons that have big whirls of feathers on their necks called Jacobeans…it is just fascinating.

Lloyd: Pigeon. You say “pigeon” to me and I think of a dirty thing on the street in New York.

Elaine: Well, exactly. And you probably didn’t realize that those birds were actually brought here from overseas. They are not native to this country. They were brought over and have adapted very well. And partly, they took over where the passenger pigeon died out.

Lloyd: Now, that…memory tells me that is an extinct bird.

Elaine: Yes, the passenger pigeon died out the beginning of the 20th century,

Lloyd: Really?

Elaine: Yes, but in the 18th century they would have been here and taking a niche in the ecosystem.

L: What is the most fun animal to work with? The one that will kind of do what you want without being hit with a stick?

Elaine: (Laughs.) None of them will do what you want all of the time. I don’t know that I can say that I have a favorite animal. The lambs are a tremendous amount of fun, and we have just finished the big portion of our lambing; we have 23 lambs this year. They’re a tremendous amount of fun because they have a lot of energy and they jump around and quite often when you pick them up they just kind of lean against you and sort of half fall asleep. I guess maybe they’re the most fun.

Lloyd: They would be the size that I would be attracted to. Horses are too big for me, and cows are too big for me.

Elaine: Yeah, although the cattle that we have are really wonderful animals. We have two calves currently. We have a couple more calves coming, probably between now and July. We milk those cows. It’s kind of nice on a cold morning to snuggle up to a nice, warm cow.

Lloyd: (Laughs.) Something I’ve never had a desire to do – cow snuggling.

Elaine: (Laughs.) You should try it.

Lloyd: Maybe I should. You milk the cows. What time do you have to get up? Is that an early event?

Elaine: You’re right. There are a lot of factors in milking the cow. If you take the calf away from the cow, then you do want to milk her on a regular basis. You want her to keep producing milk. Milk is produced hormonally. If you don’t milk her, her hormones will say, “Oh, nobody is taking the milk, maybe we should drop back in production.” The way we work it here is a little different. We typically leave the calf with the cow. We’ll shut the calf up first thing in the morning – 8:00 or 9:00 o’clock. The calf will be in a little pen where it can see its mom and hear its mom, but it can’t nurse. Then about 3:00 or 4:00 in the afternoon, the cow will have built up enough milk that we sit down with a bucket and interpret to the visitors, and milk the cow for the public. Then we let the calf out. The calf essentially gets 2/3 of the milk the cow makes, from about 4:00 to 8:00 the next morning. We get about 1/3 of the milk.

Lloyd: What do people ask?

Elaine: Well, people ask a lot of interesting questions. Probably one of the most common questions is “What is its name?” and “How old is it?” The livestock we use here – the cattle in particular – are real different from what folks are used to seeing. So we get a lot of questions, again with the cattle in particular, is that a bull? We leave the horns on our cattle, and most folks don’t realize that males and females both produce horns. There are a few breeds of cattle that are naturally polled, and that term means they never grow horns. A female can have horns as well as a male. People see these big animals out in the fields with horns and they say “that must be a bull.” You have to look at the other end of the animal to tell if it’s a girl or a boy.

Lloyd: (Laughs.)You have a lot of rare breeds that you don’t see every place.

Elaine: You’re right. Our cattle are rare. They’re called American Milking Devons, originally from England. They came into this country about 1623, so they’ve been here in the United States for a long, long time. They were popular because they are a triple-purpose animal. The average farmer in the 18th century did a little bit of everything. That way, if maybe the cow didn’t get pregnant and didn’t produce a calf and didn’t produce milk, then the orchard did well, or if the fox killed all of the chickens, then maybe the tobacco did well. He wasn’t putting all of his proverbial eggs in one basket. He needed cattle that he could milk, that he could work – because cattle pulling plows and pulling stumps out of the ground and pulling logs through the woods is how we get farm work done in the 18th century. The farmer also needed cows to produce enough meat so they could eat them. The Milking Devon was quite popular.

Today’s farmers are very different. We have dairy farmers who are interested in milk production but are not interested meat production. Beef farmers are just the opposite. Animals like the Devon that fit both venues fairly well are not real popular (today). That’s one of the reasons we have them (here). We want folks to see the correct livestock for the time period, and we also want folks to realize that there are different breeds of cattle. Not all cattle are black and white like the cattle you see on dairy commercials or like Black Angus. There’s a wide range of cattle. We also have a rare breed of sheep, the Leicester Longwools. They’re also from England. They were developed about the time period of the 18th century. They were an important part of the agricultural revolution, which is why most of us don’t have to farm today. The agricultural revolution made farmers extremely efficient, and it’s still going on. There was a man in England named Robert Bakewell, who developed sheep that were standardized. That hadn’t happened before. With standardization you can see improvement much quicker. You have a much steadier increase of improvement. The work that he did was written about in books that came here. Washington, Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe all read books about Bakewell. Washington had some of Bakewell’s sheep at Mount Vernon. He was very, very interested in these sheep.

So, we have the sheep and the cattle. We also have two breeds of rare horses. One is called the American Cream Draft Horse. This is the exception to the “looking correct for the 18th century” rule. With our horses, we really have to think about if they’re safe on our streets. They are involved in carriage rides, so the horses have to be able to deal with baby strollers, and people with dogs, and garbage trucks, and backhoes. We tend to look for personality in our horses first, and the breed second. The American Cream is the only American Draft Horse. It was developed during the 1920s and 1940s, when tractors became popular. It was a very regional breed developed in Iowa. The breed struggled. About 15 years ago, we got some American Creams and the group reorganized, and the American Cream is actually doing very well today. It is still very rare, but the numbers are definitely going up and I think the group is going in the right direction.

Lloyd: How did you get interested in this? Obviously, you know all of this stuff…

Elaine: I grew up on a dairy farm, so I had a lot of practical livestock experience, day to day. I was also interested in history. We had a little museum down the street from us where my parents and I volunteered. I was lucky enough to go to New Zealand on an exchange and I lived with sheep farmers for eight months. That gave me a lot of sheep knowledge.

Lloyd: I still find it hard to believe. Here’s somebody who is walking down the street and says, “Hey, I’ll go work there and take care of the animals.”

Elaine: (Laughs.) Well, as is true with a lot of people, I had a friend who said, “There’s a job here and you are perfect for this job.” I didn’t even know the job was open and my friend called and said “you need to apply for this job.”

Lloyd: And you got it.

Elaine: And I got it.

Lloyd: And now you know all about the animals.

Elaine: Well, I don’t know about that. There’s always more to learn.

Lloyd: Has anybody ever stumped you, asked a question that you had no idea what to say?

Elaine: Yes, but right off of the top of my head I can’t tell you what those questions are. There are people who come up with questions that I don’t know the answer to.

Lloyd: Do you fib?

Elaine: (Laughs.) No! I tell them that I don’t know the answer.

Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present this time. Check often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.

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