barns at the Experiment Station in Rambouillet, France.
The Rambouillet had its
origin among the Moors of North Africa during the Fourteenth Century.
Distant ancestors of today's Rambouillet accompanied Moorish conquerors to
Spain, and their descendants were left behind when the Spaniards drove the
Merinos were a valuable legacy of that otherwise unhappy period, along
with Europe's first true horse culture. Both were jealously guarded. The
quality of Merino wool allowed the Spaniards to dominate the European wool
trade, and to maintain that dominance the government strictly forbade
export of the precious breed. Spain did export much of its raw wool clip,
however, for lack of sufficient processing capacity. Neighboring France
was a major buyer and became heavily dependent upon a stable supply to
keep its own mills in operation. By the mid-eighteenth century, the French
began to fear that increasing Spanish industrialization might lead to an
embargo on Merino wool as well as Merino sheep.
That concern and the
desire to develop domestic production to offset it may have played a large
part in Louis XVI's establishment of the experimental farm at his
Rambouillet estate. The farm was advertised as a place where examples of
the choicest plants and animals from around the world would be studied.
High on the list, if it could be obtained, was the Spanish Merino.
If such flattery was a
ploy, it worked where direct entreaties had failed. As a gift to his
cousin Louis, the King of Spain ordered that a small flock representing
the finest strains of Merinos be released for export to the Rambouillet
farm. A total of 318 ewes, 41 rams and 7 wethers arrived at Rambouillet on
October 12, 1786.
It was the first
significant release of Merinos to the outside world and except for one
small addition provided the sole basis of the eventual Rambouillet breed.
Within the next few
years the Spanish empire began to crumble and Merinos found their way
throughout the globe, mixing and mingling with various other breeds and
types. The strain assembled at Rambouillet remained unusually pure,
however, even through the tumult of the French Revolution when their owner
lost both the throne and his head. Parceled out to a handful of dedicated
caretakers, the Rambouillet Merinos not only maintained their superior
fine-wool characteristics but also developed a body size and confirmation
seldom seen outside the mutton breeds.
By the mid-1800s a few
American breeders had begun importing Rambouillet rams to cross onto
domestic flocks, primarily the by-then common and somewhat deteriorated
Merinos. A select group of American sheepmen, however, attempted to
emulate the small clique of Europeans who maintained pure Rambouillet
This led to a split
between the Purists and those who attempted to graft the Rambouillet name
on a cross bred offering. The culmination of that rift was the 1889
meeting that produced the Rambouillet Association.
A tract in an early
edition of the annual American Rambouillet Record elaborated in some
detail on the concerns that brought the association into existence. Its
anonymous author wrote that "most" of the early importations of
Rambouillet rams into America were used to increase fleece bulk on
existing Merinos and to improve their "size, vigor and constitution".
continued, this tended to reduce total fleece weight, which in the more
common Merinos was often a result of excessive grease. In response, many
breeders shifted selection toward "the greatest possible weight of fleece
in proportion to the weight of carcass, regardless of the proportion of
scoured wool to the raw material".
In short, they bred the
grease back into the point where it formed "a black crust on the surface
of the wool". They also sacrificed frame size in the process, returning
nearer and nearer to the common Merino while retaining the Rambouillet
This practice was aided
and abetted by the Civil War, when demand for wool soared and buyers were
unable to discriminate against heavy-shrinking clips. Consequently, the
Record explained, "nearly all of the pure races of the French Merino
disappeared", jeopardizing not only the wool attributes that had been bred
into them, but their near mutton-breed carcasses as well.
It was to preserve
those dwindling numbers of pure Rambouillet that the Association was
formed. It became permanent with its 1890 meeting, and soon afterward
began publishing the Record.
The first issue lists
Grinnell as president; L. B. Townsend of Vancouver, Washington,
vice-president; L. G. Townsend of lonia, Michigan, as treasurer; and
Samuel D. Pierson of lonia as secretary. By 1892, L. B. Townsend was shown
to reside in lonia, Michigan, along with L. B. Townsend, so all of the
group's original members were essentially Michigan men, as were the two
directors who did not otherwise serve as officers.
In addition to the six
officers and directors, the Association appointed a judge whose task it
was to "rigidly examine every flock and reject any and all sheep or flocks
regarding which there was the slightest doubt as to purity of race". The
first Record includes only six flocks which survived the cut.
"Some flocks were
entirely rejected and permanently excluded from record," the publication
stated with finality. Sheep which qualified for registration were to be
permanently identified "by means of metal ear-tags", with name and number
Today, the association
is located in Levelland, Texas and the registry has been out-sourced to
Milo, Iowa. All pertinent past records have been moved to a climate
controlled building on the campus of Angelo State University in San
Angelo Texas. Records dating back to 1893 are encased to preserve our