Author photo

By Jon Hammond
contributing writer 

The life of a Kern County shepherd in 1899

Mountain Tales: First-hand stories of life in Tehachapi


July 23, 2022

Jon Hammond

We only hear from the world about two or three times a month because our camp is always off far from the ranch. We start in the Owens Valley and work our way down to Tehachapi, where the Angora goats are sheared. Fred (an old ranch hand) comes to it only to bring eatables and to move the camp to another canyon when the feed is all gone. I went to work the first of September and haven't done anything yet except run around over the mountains and have a good time in general, though it is rather lonesome at times.

When I came up on the stage I saw lots and lots of skeletons of horses, colts, cows, calves, sheep and lambs along the road [now known as Highway 395]. The driver said that about two years ago a lot of men started to drive their stock up to the mountains above here and it was so hot and the feed and water were so scarce that they died by the hundreds all along the way.

We don't eat but two meals a day up here and the less we have to carry the better it is for us, so we don't carry either lunch or canteen. Sometimes we go all day long without a drop of water and we are pretty nearly empty at night when we get to camp, I can tell you. We get up in the morning a little after sun up, and as we haven't any lantern, we go to bed as soon as the stars begin to shine. Each fellow takes his blankets and his dog and lies down on one side of the band of goats at night so the dogs will keep the coyotes and wild cats away. There are lots of coyotes and wild cats and thousands and tens of thousands of little striped chipmunks [Mojave Ground Squirrels] running over the rocks with their tails curved up over their backs.

I put a patch on the knee of my overalls the other day and it is really quite a creditable job. A fellow is obliged to be an all around man up here, cook, tailor, goat-herder and butcher as we kill our own meat. You ought to have seen the loaf of bread I made the other day, it was a dandy I tell you. I think it weighed about 40 pounds. We managed to wash it down by putting lots of gravy on it and sending coffee down after each bite, but it would have been tempting providence to have gone swimming after that meal. The failure wasn't so much my fault as that of the sourdough spoiling by putting it too close to the fire so that it cooked a little before we used it.

Here is out average bill of fare: Breakfast – fried meat, fried beans, gravy, bread and coffee. Supper – boiled meat, boiled cabbage, rice or macaroni, occasionally stewed raisins, bread, gravy and tea. One of us comes into camp about an hour before time to bring the goats in, and has supper ready by the time the others get in.

– Phil Hand, Letter to Home, 1899

Phil Hand was columnist Jon Hammond's grandfather, and he worked as a shepherd, herding several thousand goats in the mountains and deserts of Kern County in the late 1800s.


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