MEEKER I Boasting 30 years of legacy and traditions, Meeker’s Ute Park will once again be brimming with dogs, sheep and people for the annual Meeker Classic Champion Sheepdog Trials Sept. 7-11.
Known as the “go-to trial” around the world, the Meeker Classic features 140 dog/handler teams matched up against the tough, wily Meeker sheep. A true community effort, this tradition embraces Meeker’s cultural heritage and showcases volunteerism, sportsmanship and friendship.
Back in the mid 1980s, locals Marv Brown and Lou Watkins were at the Gus/Christine Halandras kitchen table when then Mayor Gus Halandras mentioned he was looking for an idea to bring commerce and people to the community. Trainers and trialers themselves, Brown and Watkins suggested a sheepdog trial.
Little did they know that their idea would write the script for something that has become a legend of its own. The Meeker Classic now stands as an event that elicits a true sense of community for all those involved.
Looking back on that first day of the first Meeker sheepdog trial on Sept. 17, 1987, Keith Chamberlain described it best in his historical piece, Something Useful and Unspoiled . . .:
“As the first light of day brightened the sky over the White River Valley, the chilly temperature betokened a change of season. Among folks gathered out at the Seely Ranch a few miles from Meeker there was keen anticipation to match the crispness in the air. In the growing light, handlers could be seen walking among fence panels, pacing off distances, committing fetch and drive lines to memory, toting up the small landmarks that might serve as aids to navigation in their run. Out at the far end of the field, a goodly herd of woolly Columbia ewes were packed tight into holding pens. They pricked up their ears when a chorus of howls and yips erupted from the throats of three score and ten eager border collies. The voices swelled to a brief crescendo, then faded away. On this, the first of many such mornings, the actors were gathered, the stage was set and all was in readiness.
“Then, with the dazzling new-risen sun chasing the chill, months of preparation came to an end. Judge David McTier assembled the contestants for the morning handlers’ meeting. In a rich Scottish brogue, he outlined the work to be done and reminded them that he’d be looking for straight lines, smooth corners and a steady pace. Herbert Holmes and his dog Nell came to the handler’s post. The dog spied the packet of five sheep moving to the set out post atop a gentle rise 500 yards away and she strained forward, eyes locked on her sheep. Holmes waited for the sheep to settle a bit, then gave Nell the command she so much wanted and she rocketed away in a blur of black and white. It was Thursday, September 17, 1987, and the first Meeker sheepdog trials were underway. Holmes and Nell were about to discover something interesting about the sheep in this neck of the woods.
“At the end of her outrun that first morning Nell shimmied into position behind the packet of five and up came their heads. They studied her and she studied them back. When she finally got them moving, things went downhill fast. Recounting that historic first Meeker run, Holmes says flatly, ‘It was terrible, absolutely terrible. Barely movin’ the sheep and if they were movin’ they were goin’ all over the place.’ Nell and Holmes quickly realized these gals weren’t docile farm flock ewes. After a few minutes of chasing them all over the far end of the field, Holmes called out, ‘That’ll do, Nell!’ and retired. He would soon regret it.
“The sheep stymied dogs and handlers all day and a lot of scores were miserably low. From the sidelines, the light began to dawn on Holmes. ‘Now it’s a historical fact that the Meeker sheep are hard to deal with, but because I didn’t know how bad the runs could be there, I walked away before my time had expired, probably with enough points to get to the semifinals. However, I didn’t know that at the time.’ He fared better with his second dog but on the first run of the first day of the first trials ever at Meeker, Herbert Holmes and Nell established a brand new tradition: They got Meekered.”
The phrase “Meekered” is now standard phrase usage by handlers—they’ve been “Meekered” defined: mee-kered (“mee-kerd”) v.i. [American slang, origin—Meeker Classic Championship Sheepdog Trials],
1. To be thwarted in the attempt to drive sheep, the consequence being to receive a low score or be disqualified.
2.To be outmaneuvered by a packet of sheep
Herbert Holmes, the one who was so famously initiated with the term “Meekered” 30 years ago will compete in the 2016 Meeker Classic with his dog, Bob. Herbert and Bob made it in to the finals in 2015 and hope to do the same this year.
Over the years, handlers from all over the world have gathered in Meeker— drawn by the sheep and the rough 600-yard-high altitude course. Meeker sheep are known as tough and independent ones that challenge even the best dog and handler teams as they work together to maneuver the group through the series of obstacles.
Mimicking real-life situations when working on the farm or ranch, the amazing teamwork that exists between the handler and his sheepdog is remarkable to watch and attracts visitors to Meeker each year. It takes 750 sheep to provide each handler with a fresh group for qualifying runs.
Meeker Classic entries have grown from 64 dogs in 1987 to 270 entries in 2016 from across the US, Canada and Brazil. Those 270 entrees are narrowed down through a draw process to the 140 dogs that ultimately compete.
Originally held at the Seely Ranch up Flag Creek, the trials have moved twice since then—first to Walt Brown’s hayfield at the junction of Highway 13 and 64 a couple miles west of town, and then to the current site at Ute Park, just west of the Meeker city limits.
Evolving into an event that intertwines five days of sheepdog trials, education, culture and trade, the Meeker Classic stands testimony to the community that built it. Events and attractions associated with the event continue to grow and change each year.
The perennial favorites remain as well—the artisan craft and food fair, art contest and auction, lamb cook-off, flyball and agility dogs, petting farm, pancake breakfast, barbecues, educational seminars and demonstrations.
This years’ educational demonstrations will feature spinning and weaving, Navajo culture and traditions, felting, saddle making, border collie training, dutch oven cooking and so much more. Youth art programs are now offered in the education tent during the final weekend.
Entertainment events have expanded into a major solo concert by Michael Martin Murphey on Thursday evening following the art reception, a free Screening of the award winning film “UNBranded” on Friday evening and Saturday evening at the Rio Blanco County Fairgrounds with an outdoor concert featuring a cowboy entertaining duo, Gary McMahan and Dave Munsick, a Lions Club barbeque and an arena trail.
The educational aspects of the event now feature a School Outreach Program that hosts more than 500 students annually. Organized school groups from across Northwest Colorado attend the Meeker Classic, Wednesday through Friday, free of charge. The opportunity for students to spend some time at the Meeker Classic often paves the beginning of a year-long learning journey as teachers use the experience to reinforce the core subjects taught in their classroom.
Governed by a 14-member board of directors that meets monthly during the year, it takes the work of 350-plus volunteers annually to orchestrate the event.
The Meeker Classic originated out of an economic slump, has survived the economic ups and downs of the nation’s economy over the years and remains a viable, tangible event for the community.
So much has changed, yet Meeker still remains the same—a place where time stands still, where dogs, sheep, handlers and visitors gather each year to celebrate the sport of sheepdog trials and the Meeker Classic.
The efforts of thousands of volunteers who have contributed countless hours have made the Meeker Classic the standard to which any trial and event might aspire to meet.