Sheepherder stoves have long been an iconic item associated with wild places, adventure and frontier life. Since the 1800s, the sheepherder stove has been a fixture in sheepherder and cowboy camps, trappers cabins and in hunting and fishing camps throughout North America. Used for heating and cooking, the sheepherder stove has provided countless outdoorsmen with warmth and a cook-top necessary for their survival.
During a backcountry fishing camp in Wyoming years ago, we stayed at an outfitters cabin. The cabin was a large. But the Sims sheepherder stove and a nearby stack of wood were the first things we noticed as we entered the cabin. Traditionally, you leave a fire ready to start when you leave a cabin, and this stove was waiting on a match.
During a week-long trip, the sheepherder stove provided warmth and hot meals for the two of us. The cool air of morning was quickly heated by the little stove. The tantalizing aroma of thick, black chicory coffee and bacon frying filled the nooks and crannies of the little cabin as we got ready for the day’s fishing. At night, the scene was repeated with simple but delicious camp food and a wee bit of whiskey. After depending on a sheepherder stove for a week, it was easy to understand the importance of this simple yet elegant stove for those who spent time in the backcountry.
Fireplaces were the means for cooking and heating a frontier home until 1800. This was when the first real wood-burning stove was invented. As time passed, these stoves replaced the fireplace as the primary place to cook. The year 1830 saw small cast-iron stoves being manufactured. Also in 1830, small cast-iron stoves started being used in gypsy wagons in France.
The year 1860 brought the development and manufacture of the box or “American” stove made of sheet iron. Popularity of the sheet-iron stove grew and. In 1869, the U.S. Army ordered small sheet-iron box stoves to be placed in wagons for winter campaigns against the Native Americans in the west. Carbon County, Wyoming, blacksmith James Candlish is credited with making the first sheepherder wagon featuring a small sheet-iron stove in 1884. The sheepherder stove was born! The popularity of the stove spread and it became commonplace on sheep and cattle ranches throughout the West.
Gold was discovered in the Yukon in 1896. As miners flocked to the area, the sheepherder stove was a necessity to heat their tents and cabins. Alaskan and Canadian trappers learned the value of the stove from the Yukon miners, and began using it in their cabins throughout the rugged and hostile North Country. By the 1920s, Rocky Mountain outfitters had witnessed the successful use of the sheepherder stoves on ranches and in trappers cabins and adopted them for use in their wall tents. Almost 100 years later, hunters and anglers are still using sheepherder stoves in their wall tents throughout North America.
The sheepherder stoves that are available today have been updated and improved over the years. Two stove companies, Sims Stoves and Four Dog Stoves, build their stoves with a different design philosophy and both are very successful.
Over 60 years ago, P.D. Sims, an elk- and sheep-hunting guide, started Sims Stoves to provide his version to the public. Tired of poorly designed stoves that didn’t last, Sims developed the Sportsman stove to fold for compactness, be lightweight for packing and engineered to last for years. The stoves are still built in Billings, Montana, with a number of accessory items such as ovens, water tanks and side shelves available.
Four Dog Stoves of St. Francis, Minnesota, has built a reputation for “mule tough” stoves since 1988. It offers stoves not only in cold rolled steel but also in titanium. The titanium stoves resist warping and are about 50-percent lighter than steel of the same gauge. They also tolerate a hotter fire than a steel stove. Four Dog Stoves don’t fold as other stoves do but have a one-piece firebox. The stove’s legs and stovepipe pack inside the firebox so there is only one item to transport. Kni-Co Manufacturing in Wallowa, Oregon, Riley Camp Stoves in Townsend, Montana, and Cabela’s in Sidney, Nebraska, also manufacture sheepherder stoves in a variety of sizes.
Built To Last
Consumers often buy stoves smaller than what they really need to save money. Buy your stove based on the size space you need to heat. Having too small a stove will not heat your space efficiently. No one enjoys being up at night to feed the fire on a bitterly cold night. Contact the stove manufacturer for their recommendation.
Put an inch of dirt or sand in the bottom of the stove before using. This insulates, seals the stove bottom and prolongs the life of the stove. Also try to spend time with your stove, learning its peculiarities, so you can get the most out of it when you really need it.
Small wood is good for sheepherders stoves, but large pieces are not. You’ll get a better burn with smaller wood. Take the time to split it. Blue smoke is a sign of poorly burning wood as it leaves creosote in the stovepipe requiring more frequent cleaning. White smoke, however, is normal when starting a fire. No smoke means you are burning all the energy from the wood.
Sheepherder stoves are as popular as ever with outdoorsmen needing to warm their tents or cabins in cold weather. For those interested in living off the grid and tiny houses, the sheepherder’s stove is enjoying new interest by a younger audience.
This article is from the winter 2019 issue of American Frontiersman Magazine. Grab your copy at OutdoorGroupStore.com.
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