Wool and Mohair Industry

By: Paul H. Carlson

Type: General Entry

Published: February 1, 1996

The wool and mohair industry in Texas dates from the arrival of the first sheep and goats that Spanish soldiers and missionaries brought with them to Texas in the early eighteenth century. They used the animals for food or for breeding stock on the ranches they established in association with missions founded in East Texas and along the San Antonio River. Wool production, however, remained a secondary enterprise until the mid-nineteenth century, when growers introduced breeds known for their wool clips more than for their mutton qualities. Mohair production began after the Civil War when ranchers introduced Angora goats to the state. During the Spanish period in Texas wool production remained small. The sheep, chaurros for the most part, were mutton breeds used mainly for their meat. Lean, gaunt, and weighing only sixty to eighty pounds at maturity, the chaurros yielded 2½ pounds of coarse, open wool. At the larger missions, such as San José y San Miguel de Aguayo near San Antonio, friars and the Indian neophytes sheared the flocks on an annual basis and used the wool to make cloth and coarse blankets, mainly for home consumption, but such missions as San Antonio de Valero (Alamo) contained workshops in which weavers made good-quality woolens. Although there was little emphasis placed upon wool production, missionaries on occasion traded the cloth and blankets for corn and other food products, but large, regular markets for surplus production were so distant and so difficult to reach as to be virtually nonexistent.

Emphasis on improving wool quality began in the early American period. Stephen F. Austin and other land agents, or empresarios, quickly became aware of the possibilities for wool growing in the region, suggesting that American sheep could upgrade the chaurros. Perhaps as early as 1821 pioneer farmers in the San Felipe area had begun breeding American stock with the Spanish sheep. Not long afterwards the farmers were shearing six to eight pound fleeces from mixed-blood animals that were twice the weight of chaurros. Such results encouraged Thompson H. Ficklin, a textile manufacturer from Missouri, to write to Austin, indicating that he was ready to move a fulling mill and carding and spinning machines to Texas to take advantage of the expanding interest in wool growing. Whether or not Ficklin brought his equipment to Texas is unknown, but wool-cloth manufacturing on a small scale, mainly as a handicraft enterprise, developed. Increasingly, in addition, American and Europeans who arrived in Texas brought with them blooded sheep known for their wool qualities. The most important was the merino, the foundation breed of all modern fine-wool sheep. Sheep-trailers brought merinos from the Midwest and from New England and with good results bred them to chaurros. Wool growing in Texas, however, remained a secondary enterprise, where farmers raised the animals in tiny flocks in adjunct to their fields and cattle.

Major changes in the Texas wool industry began in the 1850s, when George Wilkins Kendall, founder and editor of the New Orleans Picayune, established a sheep ranch in the Hill Country near Boerne, Texas. He imported large merino rams, bred them carefully to chaurro ewes, and above all advertised his startling success in letters, circulars, articles, and pieces in his New Orleans newspaper. More than any other individual Kendall changed Texas sheep raising from mutton to wool production. Concomitantly, eastern textile firms increasingly adapted their machines to wool-cloth manufacturing, thus forming a market for fine wool. When the Civil War in the 1860s cut the amount of cotton reaching New England mills, the textile companies turned more and more to wool-cloth manufacturing. Partly as a result of these activities there occurred a boom in the Texas wool industry. Major wool markets appeared first in Corpus Christi and Galveston. In the 1880s Thomas C. Frost, who had developed a wool warehousing system, made San Antonio the leading market, and by 1890 Charles Schreiner in Kerrville had elevated his city to preeminence. Adopting Frost's system of wool warehousing, Schreiner added to it by agreeing to sell producers' wool on a commission basis to eastern buyers. For a percentage of the sale's price, he agreed to handle, store, and sell the wool. His combination warehouse and commission sales operation was unique (until late in the twentieth century Texas was the only state with such a scheme), profitable, and convenient. His busy teamsters carried food, equipment, and supplies to ranchers and hauled back to Kerrville the annual wool clips. Moreover, he financed many ranchers by providing loans, and he encouraged the spread of fine wool sheep, especially delaines, the American merino strain.

Sheep and wool production spread. In 1850 there were 100,530 sheep in Texas with about half of them grazing in South Texas below San Antonio. In 1860 the number reached 753,363 animals, providing 1,493,363 pounds of wool. The figures continued to increase over the next two decades, reaching a total of 3,715,000 sheep in 1880, when a frenzy for wool growing hit the industry. Five years later there were 6,620,000 sheep in the state, and wool growing had spread through much of western Texas, especially the Edwards Plateau and the lower Pecos River country. Wool growers carefully watched over their sheep the year around. Of the many seasonal activities associated with the ranch, shearing was one of the most concentrated. On the smaller ranches the owner and a few hired hands might shear the sheep themselves and haul the clip to a local market. On the large ranches itinerant shearing crews, often from Mexico, performed the work, the same crew coming annually to the ranch. An expert shearer (tasinque) was expected to fleece 100 sheep per day and received three to four cents per fleece. He worked at a covered platform on which the sheep were thrown down, tied, and shorn while the ranch owner and his hands tallied and tied each fleece before placing it in an eight to ten foot sack, which when filled weighed about 360 pounds. Freighters hauled the wool clip to a distant warehouse, market, or commission sales center. In South Texas the wool was moved by ox wagon or large, two-wheeled Mexican carretas (carts) to Corpus Christi. After the spring shearing season Corpus Christi warehouses commonly received trains of up to fifty carretas carrying wool from distant ranches. In Southwest Texas the wool was moved by wagon usually to San Antonio or Kerrville. Teamsters, at least those who developed a special trade in wool freighting, often hitched three to four heavily loaded wagons, attached one behind the other, to five or more pair of horses and hauled the wool over the narrow, twisting roads characteristic of the western Hill Country.

The expanding wool industry encouraged the appearance of wool-cloth manufacturing. As a handicraft activity wool-cloth making in Texas had occurred at an early date, but now large textile mills appeared. At Huntsville the state penitentiary as early as 1857 annually manufactured about a million and a half yards of wool-cloth. In 1860, although twenty-four Texans called themselves woolen manufacturers, only two woolen goods establishments met census definition of a factory. The largest was the Houston City Mills Manufacturing Company with 2,288 spindles and one jack of 240 spindles for wool. During the Civil War the Texas government, seeking to increase production, established a military board to promote the manufacture of woolen goods, and it opened a foundry in Austin that later built spinning jennies for cloth manufacturing. To promote home manufacturing the board imported 40,000 pairs of cotton and wool cards (similar to wire-studded cards used to groom livestock). To encourage large textile companies, the state provided land grants to individuals who established woolen and cotton mills. Textile operators built two such land-grant mills in New Braunfels and one each in Waco, Hempstead, and Bastrop, but all of them handled more cotton than wool. Wool-carding and cloth-dressing mills appeared in Hunt and Grayson counties. Wool-cloth manufacturing remained small, however, and as late as 1941 there were only four plants in Texas that were devoted to some form of wool processing or woolens manufacturing.

The development of an Angora goat and mohair industry accompanied the expanding wool operations. Ranchers brought the first Angoras to Texas in the 1850s, breeding the bucks to Spanish does of mixed ancestry. After the Civil War Angora goat raising increased, spreading especially to the dry, brushy upland of the Edwards Plateau, a region containing the best Angora browse to be found in the United States. William L. Black of Fort McKavett in the 1880s and 1890s played perhaps the leading role in promoting Angora and mohair production. He wrote widely of his activities, sold his goats across the state and nation, produced a book on the raising of Angora goats, and in other ways encouraged the industry. When Charles Schreiner in Kerrville offered to accept mohair on an equal basis with wool, a market was available, and the raising of Angoras increased. In 1900 there were in the state an estimated 100,000 Angora goats producing about 250,000 pounds of mohair. The mohair industry in Texas paralleled that of wool. In fact most mohair growers also raised sheep. Growers marketed both products with the same commission sales firms, often raised the goats in the same pastures with sheep, and otherwise handled the animals in similar ways as seasonal activities of breeding, shearing, marking, and dipping overlapped. Sheep and goat raising are both dual purpose: for lamb and wool or kid and mohair production.

In the twentieth century the wool and mohair industry was concentrated on the Edwards Plateau and a few neighboring counties. San Angelo in Tom Green County replaced Kerrville as the leading wool and mohair market, and with warehouses, scouring plants, and slaughterhouses, it became the largest such market in the nation. The city is the headquarters of the Texas Sheep and Goat Raisers Association, founded in 1913 to further the interests of Texas ranchers. It is also the headquarters of the Mohair Council of America, an organization designed to promote the virtues of mohair. Likewise, Texas came to dominate the national wool and mohair industry, producing 20 percent of the nation's wool and 90 percent of its mohair. Also in the twentieth century, activities associated with wool and mohair production became increasingly sophisticated. Growers became more efficient and scientific in their operations, relying on modern equipment, improved transportation facilities, and novel marketing techniques, but otherwise the handling of sheep and goats on the farm or ranch changed slightly. New breeds, especially the Rambouillet, Corriedale, Suffolk, and a variety of crosses replaced the merino as the preferred wool type. Two world wars also stimulated the wool and mohair trade. A "raise more wool" campaign during World War I revived the Texas wool industry after several years of decline after 1900, and expanding international markets during World War II encouraged wool production after the financially troubled years of the Great Depression in the 1930s. Wool production in Texas reached a peak in 1943, when growers sheared 80,713,000 pounds from 10,829,000 sheep. Mohair output reached a peak in 1965, when ranchers clipped 31,584,000 pounds from 4,612,000 Angoras. After World War II for wool and after the mid-1960s for mohair, the market fluctuated downward, and producers found it necessary to compete more with foreign products. But aided at times by tariff protection, or price support systems, or changes in fashion that favored a natural look, the state's wool and mohair growers helped to make Texas the "world capital of natural fiber." Sheep operations in Texas numbered 8,400 in 1988, producing 18,200,000 pounds of wool valued at $35,854,000 from 1,960,000 animals valued at $148,960,000. The same year mohair growers produced 15,400,000 pounds valued at $29,876,000 from 1,650,000 Angoras valued at $99,165,000. By 2000 output declined in Texas. Wool producers harvested 7,506,000 pounds of wool valued at $3,678,000 from 1,130,000 sheep, and mohair growers produced 2,346,000 pounds valued at $10,088,000 from 345,000 goats. Despite the downward trend in production, the Texas wool and mohair industry continued to lead the national output. See also GOAT RANCHING, and SHEEP RANCHING.

Paul H. Carlson, Texas Woolybacks: The Range Sheep and Goat Industry (College Station: Texas A&M University Press, 1982). Fayette Copeland, Kendall of the Picayune (Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1943). Val W. Lehmann, Forgotten Legions: Sheep in the Rio Grande Plain of Texas (El Paso: Texas Western Press, 1969). Edward M. Wentworth, America's Sheep Trails: History, Personalities (Ames: Iowa State College Press, 1948).
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The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Paul H. Carlson, “Wool and Mohair Industry,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed June 25, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/wool-and-mohair-industry.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

February 1, 1996