Isaac Hunter, Michigan
Photos courtesy of Janet Hunter, the Hunter Estate collection, Dowagiac, Michigan
A disclaimer up front—a few portions of this article are not about Karakul, but rather Tunis sheep. Isaac was a breeder of both, and the author was privy to some details of Isaac’s life because of first-hand experience with Tunis. So a moment, please.
Isaac Hunter lived in Dowagiac, Michigan, in the southwestern part of the state, about equidistant between Lake Michigan and the Indiana border. The author also raised Karakul and Tunis sheep, in southcentral Michigan; started Spring 1987 with Karakuls, and Fall 1988 with Tunis—four April-born ewe lambs and three aged ewes. The older Tunis ewes had such terrific “old-timer” bloodlines that I felt compelled to look for a ram with equally impressive lines. This meant looking for sheep with bloodlines from late 50s or early 60s Tunis breeders in the Midwest. Hunting the best possible older production bloodlines was something I started my first year as a shepherd. Isaac Hunter’s name as a Tunis breeder was repeated often. Trouble was, Isaac died in 1983 and his sheep were dispersed. Perceptively, Michigan Tunis breeders knew the value of those lines, line-bred some, and soon I had a few line-bred Isaac Hunter Tunis sheep as well; fabulous big-bodied, milky ewes.
We share the same last name, but are not related. I could only hope to have the reputation as a sheep breeder that Isaac had.
In my search for old Tunis bloodlines I heard stories of the three Hunter brothers, all bachelors, and their younger sister living together on a “little bit of everything” farm. The two older brothers had small breeds of dairy and possibly beef cattle. I want to say Kerry or Jersey dairy, Dexter or Devon beef. There were pigs and turkeys. I know Margaret had Shetland ponies, mentioned in one of her letters. Isaac was the sheep and poultry man on the farm. From what I recall, every farm species was covered except goats, rabbits and bees. I heard plenty of comments from Midwestern shepherds on Isaac’s terrific Tunis, doing things the old-fashioned way on the Hunter farm, stories of Isaac carrying water up the hill to the barn to water sheep. He had an unwavering commitment to breeding the best possible animals. Isaac passed away on February 11, 1983, age 64.
Five years later, Margaret Hunter complied her brother’s articles and sent them to the AMBC (American Minor Breeds Conservancy), indicating she wanted to make a book out of Isaac’s writings. In the collation of documents was “an original copy of the United Registry Association of Michigan, which Isaac and his friends started”. Margaret thought, …“perhaps it was the beginning of the AMBC movement.” I believe the AMBC kept all the documents which were not written by Isaac. His written articles and drafts were gathered into (at least) three comb-bound 1- inch books. There was so much information on Karakul sheep that the now renamed ALBC (American Livestock Breeds Conservancy) recommended Margaret send a copy to Julie (DeVlieg) of the AKSR (American Karakul Sheep Registy), which she did in March 1990.
Fast forward to September 2007. The author has left the Michigan farm, is living in Seattle, and visiting Julie on the other side of Washington state to talk about the nature of things Karakul. In preparation for a Karakul flock project, Julie presented to me a gift– a collection of articles and manuscripts written by Isaac Hunter between 1939 and 1953, with an additional grant proposal dated 1977. This was one man’s thirty year compendium of Michigan agricultural history, including a large section on Karakul sheep containing some previously unknown information. I valued it immediately and gave it a name, Farm Writings. Copies of Margaret’s original letters to the AMBC and Julie were enclosed in the book.
I hold the writings of a shepherd I greatly admired in Michigan. Now almost thirty years after my initial pursuit of Isaac Hunter Tunis bloodlines, I am “retired” from shepherding with the time to read his articles and manuscripts on an earlier sheep breed he raised, Karakul. And Isaac is privy to some very different stories surrounding the importations and pioneer breeders.
Fully one-third of Isaac’s Farm Writings are on Karakul sheep, another third on poultry, and the final third on trees and other farm related advice. It is a goldmine of mid-century Karakul history, a time when a lot of the breed’s history disappeared, because the sheep went away with the market for Persian lamb pelts. I stared at copies of three articles Isaac published in the Fur Farming Journal between 1949 and 1951—Karakuling for Beginners, Notes on Color in Karakul Fur Sheep, and Advantages of Color Phase Karakuls. Additionally, there were drafts of five other articles for publication.
The next jewel of Karakul history found in Isaac’s manuscripts was simply entitled Saturday, August 21, 1948—Notes from a meeting Isaac had in Chicago with Perry & Schaffner. It was five pages of Isaac’s notes from a Frank Perry story telling session, along with another Karakul breeder, John Schaffner of Wisconsin. Perry, of Davison (Lapeer), Michigan, was a former Middle East traveler with a great deal of understanding of fat-tailed sheep. He was experienced, yes; but opinionated, and definitely had his ‘own take’ on a lot of things surrounding Karakul history. Some I have confirmed with additional sources, other information I cannot validate at all. There were nuggets of little known Karakul history, and there was much chatter about C. C. Young. Undeniably, C.C. had the sort of personality that evoked the spread of gossip. Yet there were some stories Frank told about C.C. that had to be true, such as Young’s conversion to Buddhism while on his second or third Karakul import trip. I do not believe Frank could make up something so spirit-filled and soulful about a person.
Also contained in Farm Writings was some history on the Persian breed of sheep. They apparently were imported from Persia (eastern Syria and Iran) to the California coast in the early 1890’s, then spread east. There was a former Persian Sheep Registry in San Diego and Persian sheep were exhibited at the 1893 Chicago World’s Fair: Columbian Exposition. Alex Albright, in a January 1920 ad in the American Sheep Breeder and Wool Grower wrote “I have a few Syrian fat-tail sheep….” But after the 1920s, the decade of the Karakul, Persian sheep seem to have been absorbed into both the Tunis and Karakul breeds. The author is convinced this infusion of Persian sheep blood is the re-introduction of red color into the American Karakul genepool of blacks, browns, grays and whites. From a Persian lamb pelt perspective, it never made sense (to me) to cross Tunis with Karakuls, even if the resulting lambs could be red. Tunis sheep had much Merino crossed into them in the early 1800’s, resulting in finer fleeces. A finer-fleeced parent would produce woolier crossbred pelts. However, Persians are carpet wool sheep, and would cross well with Karakul for better pelt production in the color red. (More articles are planned on this topic at a later date.)
The final jewel of Karakul history found in Isaac’s manuscripts was a collection of four typewritten articles for an organization named the National Purebred Karakul Fur Sheep Association (NPKFSA) out of Metamora, Michigan. There was an article entitled Judging Purebred Karakul Fur Sheep, written by the Eligibility Committee for the NPKFA Convention in October 1953.
Then I noted in Farm Writings that Frank Perry was the Secretary of two Karakul Associations—NPBK (National Pure Bred Karakul), Metamora, Michigan and NKFS (National Karakul Fur Sheep) Registry, Denver, Colorado.
Isaac typed up Notes from a Talk by Perry, and included drafts of two published papers authored by Frank—Information Relative to Importation of Karakuls…., and Origin of the Polled Karakuls, the American Karalinc. As mentioned above, some of the information Perry provided is inaccurate. Concerning lack of horns, there is pictorial evidence of a polled Karakul ram from Dr. Young’s second importation, and Young’s description of large Duzbai sheep—some rams have large horns, others polled. So I take Perry with some salt. When his article on the Karalinc was published in the Fur Farming Journal, May-June 1949, it initiated a number of rebuttals in subsequent months, most notably from Lowry Hagerman, who was just eighteen months from publishing his landmark Karakul Handbook.
The Farm Writings article goes on to state that the NPKFA was “organized to improve and protect the purity of the Karakul Fur Sheep as imported by Dr. C.C. Young.” And the authors described the four types of Karakuls just as Dr. Young described them in some of his earliest articles, circa 1914.
- Large Duzbai—large sheep, immense tails, some rams large horns, others polled; usually black, other colors occasionally.
- Small Arabi—small and light-boned, shorter ears, smaller broadtails, both sexes horned; usually black, some staying black as adults, most fading to blue-grays, silky; best Persian lambs
- Intermediate Duzbai—a blend between the two types, most American Karakuls; any color
- Shiraz Karakul—large size, usually a color other than black; small to medium broadtails; both sexes horned; loosely curled Persian lambs; fleece is long, fluffy, silky and lustrous, dry with very little grease
Then the 1953 authors of Judging Purebred Karakul Fur Sheep noted “that most, if not all, American Karakuls will be combinations of these types….”
But in the next sentence the NPKFA Eligibility Committee states, “However, it is important that prospective judges and breeders alike become familiar with the various Karakul breeds.” Breeds? Are the types so varied as to call them breeds? Perhaps just the use of a mistaken word, but a strong one.
The authors went on to push for heavy milking ewes that produce twins and occasionally triplets. There was also a mention of keeping the long-legged, long-bodied form of the Karakul, but improving the carcass size.
The preface to Special Instructions for Judges and Show Superintendents, Rules for Judging the Asiatic-type Karakul, must be mentioned almost in entirety. The information is invaluable.
- Committee of three to judge with Score Cards, scores averaged
- Placings to be A—Excellent, B—Very Good, C—Good and D—Average
- “The showing shall be done mainly for honor and to gain knowledge and to improve the breed. Showing merely for money is to be discouraged. (emphasis added) Showing as we see it should be a breed conference for the good of all, not just for an easy dollar. [Every class should be discussed with the audience.] Only in this way can any good come from the show effort. ….of far greater importance is the knowledge carried home and the new friends made at these get-to-gethers.”
- Stewards shall show all animals. “Owners shall not be allowed in the ring during showing. Animals to be tied when not being held by the stewards.”
- No trimming, fitting, blocking or artificial treatments.
- Get of Sire and Produce of Dam classes are important and need special emphasis.
- Animals must be accompanied by either current season lamb pelt or lamb with pictures of lamb [pelt]…”
Karakul sheep classes in a 1953 show ring. Different, yes?
The next two pages described the Specific Conformation of the Karakul with main differences in tail size and ears (size and set) based on Karakul type. This section of the Special Instructions for Judges mentioned four times, a big emphasis, that Karakuls should be as “free as possible of underwool fibers”, “without showing any trace of underfiber or crimp.” It was a “disqualification to have an extreme amount of underwool, a small amount of underfiber or crimp was a defect.” Serious, because they found the best pelt producers had the least amount of underfiber.
This was followed by a one-page Score Card for Judges:
100 points for a Live Animal Scorecard
General appearance & breed type…30 points
Health & vigor…………………………35 points
Fleece—luster, length & wave………35 points
100 points for a Production Score Card
Length of pure pedigree……………..50 points
(Ideal was to trace back to the Young flock; or Arabi, Duzbai or Shiraz without mutton breeding)
Proof of Production……………………50 points
Shown with lambs, photos of lambs, and/or pelts
And then, after all this….
….the Persian lamb pelt market collapsed. Prices had been low since at least 1949 and the market for fine ladies coats slipped further. Fashions changed, became more casual, women were not wearing fur as often. The market for Karakul sheep evaporated. There was great effort put into planning the National Purebred Karakul Fur Sheep Association and readying for the NPKFA October 1953 Convention. Lowry Hagerman’s Karakul Handbook was published in 1951. The Fur Farming Journal, which started as the Karakul Journal in 1947, published its last issue mid-1954. Bad timing. But what a disappointment.
And yet the author finds some positive notes in the discovery of the very short-lived National Pure Bred Karakul Association. With Isaac Hunter and Frank Perry both sticklers for Karakul details, with strong beliefs in breeding the best possible animals from Dr. Young’s imported stock, I believe there were at least two pure-line Karakul flocks in Michigan up until the mid-1950s, one west and the other east. Isaac lived in Dowagiac, southwest, and Perry was in Metamora, the eastern thumb area.
The author’s two original Karakul ewes came from Lapeer, Michigan, nine miles from Metamora. They came out of an apple orchard, literally. There was a creek for year-round water; but they had not been sheared for years. They looked like miniature yaks. After shearing we found small, hardy animals, with small broadtails, that produced gorgeous Persian lamb pelts in their offspring. Looking back now, they appeared to be the small Arabi variety, in-bred for years. I had no idea what I had back then. Yet somehow knew they were special; even though they were not the most attractive Karakuls. Trouble was, the male progeny had horns growing too close to jaws, and I selected against that. C.C. Young had a ram named Teddy with horns too close to his face; pictures showed saw-shortened horns. So I believe now, almost thirty years later, there is a probability some C.C. Young bloodlines existed in my first Karakul sheep, from near-by Frank Perry farm ancestry.
The rest of Farm Writings was on ducks, chickens, trees, and other advice such as rodent control. There were no writings between 1953 and 1977; perhaps some are in the Livestock Conservancy Library. The final document is dated February 1977, Project Proposal to The Rolex Awards for Enterprise. Isaac wrote a grant and proposed the importation of thirteen European sheep breeds to create an all-purpose meat-wool sheep with an emphasis on prolificacy, size and vigor. Hunter was hoping his sheep breeding work “can be made available to a wide range of users including those in underdeveloped nations.”
Isaac, then 58, still pursued his desire to breed the best possible sheep. He introduced himself to The Rolex Awards team as a US citizen of British-Dutch extraction, Farm Manager with a high school diploma, who worked part-time at a USDA facility in Cass County, Michigan. He was a “lifelong farmer [who] has imported several varieties of European poultry, and has maintained a purebred flock of Kerry Hill and Tunis sheep for over twenty years.”
In 2012 I saw an ad for a Tunis flock, going out of business in North Carolina. The shepherd was advertising Isaac Hunter bloodlines. Almost 30 years after his death, February 1983, production Tunis breeders still advertise Isaac Hunter bloodlines.
Hunter Karakul sheep live on as well, in Isaac’s words. Quite a legacy.
DY Hunter, author, March 30, 2015, updated with photos July 2019
Copyright ©2015 & ©2019 ff, DYH; all rights reserved (no relation to Isaac)
- Hunter, Isaac. Farm Writings. Dowagiac, Michigan: Manuscript, 1988.
- The Book of the Fair: An Historical and Descriptive Presentation. Vol. 2. Chicago, Ill: Bancroft, Hubert Howe, 1893, p. 621.
- American Sheep Breeder and Wool Grower, January 1920, p. 73.
- Young, C.C. “Origin of Karakul Sheep.” Journal of Heredity 5, no. 10 (1914): p. 445-47.
- Kayoumy, Abdul Hay. “Monopoly Pricing of Afghan Karakul in International Markets.” Journal of Political Economy 77, no. 2 (1969): p. 219-236.
- “Lowry Hagerman Sells Big String of Karakul Lambs to Roswell Buyer.” West Texas Livestock Weekly, November 3, 1949, V 1, No 39, P 2.
- Young, C. C. Some Facts about Karakule Sheep. Holliday, Tex.: [C.C. Young], 1909.
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