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Wyoming a World Leader in Wool Education for More than a Century

July 9, 2015
man kneeling by sheep with other men in background
UW College of Agriculture Dean John Hill stands behind the Warhill sheep he developed with Fred Warren in this 1950 photo at the Warren Livestock Co. The Warhill breed has a natural tendency to twin and is well suited to a range environment. From left are Hill, Fred Warren, Dave Cook and James Davison. (American Heritage Center Photo)

Wyoming’s immense economic and academic contributions to the wool industry can be traced to John A. Hill, who helped establish a wool department, laboratory and library at the University of Wyoming that lasted for more than 100 years, ultimately improving fleeces throughout the world.

Hill’s contributions and legacy were among topics discussed during “Our Place in the West … and Beyond: Wyoming at 125,” a recent UW conference celebrating 125 years of Wyoming statehood. David Kruger, a UW agricultural research librarian, traced the university’s emergence as a world leader in wool research beginning in the early 1900s.

Kruger said Hill studied wool science at UW and was well aware of the need to improve wool in Wyoming herds. He joined the faculty in the early 1900s and successfully lobbied for a wool laboratory to teach, gather and disseminate wool research to Wyoming and beyond.

“He greatly improved wool cleaning and scouring, and established improved culling techniques to resolve problems caused by poor sheep breeding,” Kruger said. “He personally assisted ranchers in culling, and was widely respected in Wyoming agriculture.”

Wyoming stock growers who followed Hill’s direction found that their fleece averages had increased by two to three pounds after one year, Kruger said, which translated into $1.5 million additional dollars for sheep growers across the state.

In 1923, Hill was named dean of the College of Agriculture, and hired former student Robert Burns to run the wool department. Under their leadership, the wool department became known for far more than just its laboratory. In addition to running its scouring and production facilities, and conducting wool research, the department continued its extension activities for sheep growers throughout the state.

The professors sought ways to determine potential shrinkage of fleece fibers based on breeding, nutrition and other environmental conditions. Ram performance testing for wool quality became an ongoing project. Additional research led to techniques for maximizing yield potential as well as coring techniques during wool processing, creating knowledge that was transferred to students and, ultimately, back to wool producers.   

Burns significantly expanded the department’s knowledge base by creating a physical wool library that acquired books, research article clippings and wool fiber samples to perpetually build and organize an informational base of historical and contemporary wool research.  

old photo of man standing by fleece being weighedBeginning in the late 1930s, Hill and Burns, along with new hire Alexander Johnston, brought further notoriety to UW after the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) tasked them with using the wool laboratory to develop federal standards for wool fiber, particularly as they pertained to fiber diameter, fiber length and fiber shrinkage. The faculty and staff engaged in many research ventures throughout the world, often serving on national agricultural teams and traveling internationally as part of USDA missions and the U.S. AID program. Faculty published their discoveries from places as disparate as Afghanistan, Australia, China, Europe, Iran, Iraq and New Zealand.  

From the 1930s into the 1960s, the collection became quite substantial, with more than 1,000 books on sheep, wool and wool-related topics in agriculture. It ultimately featured 259 bound volumes of more than 10,000 articles published on wool and wool research.  

When construction booms came to the university after World War II, Hill gained approval for a new College of Agriculture building, with an additional building exclusively for the wool department and  a wool laboratory with one of the most modern commercial scouring facilities of its time.

Hill died in 1951, but UW continued as a national and world leader in wool research into the 1970s, Kruger said. As wool processing began to shift overseas and clothing increasingly shifted toward synthetic fibers, significant reduction of wool scouring facilities across the United States followed. By 1980, UW was the only land grant institution in the United States to still offer a degree in wool, much less the only one to have ever offered master’s and doctoral degrees in the subject.

Bob Stobart, UW’s last wool faculty member, continued to use the lab and library until 2002. Kruger said the UW Libraries helped coordinate removal of the equipment and contents of the library and, with other partners including the American Heritage Center and Wyoming Territorial Park, plans to preserve the historical artifacts to improve the value of Wyoming wool and make the knowledge accessible for future generations.

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