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RBC I Next week as Meeker opens its doors for the 2021 Meeker Classic, much will be the same as it has been for 34 years. It still takes a community to pull the event off – you need open space, good sheep and good dogs.
That first Meeker Classic Sheepdog Trial started off something like this – as written by Keith Chamberlain (Meeker Classic Volunteer):
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, Sept. 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 “Meeker-ed.”
The Meeker sheep provided by the Seely family set the tradition for years to come. Since then, many a dog and handler have been “Meeker-ed.”
“We set a new standard,” a volunteer says proudly of the first trial. “The sheep were a dream come true. All from one flock and as uniform as could be. Tough, tough sheep. If you didn’t have enough dog, they’d stand your dog up.” Every handler had a fresh packet during qualifying runs, a tradition that continues to the present. “When they’re all a fresh draw everybody has the same chance. It was a very, very fair event.”
Since that first year in 1987 – hundreds of volunteers, thousands of sheep and too many dogs to count have left their mark of what’s become an institution in the sheepdog world. Things have changed a bit, but it’s still the tough competition that handlers look forward to each year as they file into Meeker.
Looking back – one can compare the differences between 1987 and 2021:
• Sheep–still tough western range sheep, all from one flock, about 900 of them.
• Dogs–mainly collies. The Meeker Classic is now sanctioned by the United States Border Collie Handler’s Association.
• Volunteers and support from the community remain the mainstay of the Meeker Classic.
• The course and the location have changed a bit–first up Flag Creek, the Meeker Classic is now held at Ute Park just west of the Meeker City Limits. Owned by the city of Meeker, it’s an ideal location for the event. The pen in the first Meeker Classic was a stock rack on a pickup bed and a chute and bridge the featured obstacles.
• Tents – there were tents at the first Meeker Classic and we have them today
• Bleachers and spectators – 1987 and 2021 – yes – just a few more than we had in the beginning.
Yes, it’s been a good run and there’s so much to be thankful for. Most importantly is the unending support from the community, spectators and handlers. As the 2021 Trial marks it’s first day, we’ll be missing many of our handlers from up north. Covid restrictions have prevented several Canadian handlers from travelling across the border.
None-the-less, 170 border collies will square off against 900 western range ewes for a week of sheepdog trials and so much more. Vendors will share their food and wares, while artwork and photography graces the walls of the Wilber Barn. Demonstrations and educational demos are offered free throughout the week. Premier evening attractions include the Art Reception on Thursday, September 9th and the Jammin’ Lamb Fest downtown on Saturday evening. A late addition to the evening festivities is the free Glen Campbell Tribute – Debby Campbell Story-Telling Series Concert on Friday evening.
It’s a fun-filled family week featuring the virtues of rural communities that beckon to the hearts of so many that visit Meeker each year. At the heart of it all is the Border Collie that remarkable dog that touches our hearts, gains our respect and utter admiration. Take a day and visit the Meeker Classic. Tuesday, Sept. 7, 2021, is a free day with limited amenities. You won’t be disappointed. Put so well by the American Sheepdog Society on the border collie: “Here, one can be in touch with something useful and unspoiled, a pastoral art where three of the most admirable canine virtues, namely, intelligence, control, and obedience, are seen at their very best.”
For more information call: 970-878-0111 or visit www.meekersheepdog.com
Special to The Herald Times