The Clermont State Historic Site in Germantown was home to seven generations of the Livingston family, from 1740 to 2000. Visitors today can enjoy tours of the stately old mansion and stroll more than 500 acres of meadow and woodlands, all set against the scenic backdrop of the Hudson River and the Catskill Mountains.
The grounds offer a pastoral setting for many wedding receptions and host a number of holiday-themed events. The next such affair is the annual Chancellor’s Sheep & Wool Showcase on Saturday, April 21 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Admission is by the carload, so get your knitting group or fiber friends together to carpool: The entrance fee will be $10 per vehicle, or $8 for members of Clermont’s “Friends” organization. (The rain date is Sunday, April 22.)
The family-friendly festival pays tribute in name and spirit to the mansion’s best-known resident, Robert R. Livingston, Jr. (1746-1813), whose designation as “the Chancellor” came with his position as the highest-ranking judge in New York under the original state constitution. Livingston served as secretary of foreign affairs from 1781 to 1783, and he administered the presidential oath of office to George Washington in 1789, on the balcony of Federal Hall in New York City.
In 1801, Livingston accepted Thomas Jefferson’s appointment to France as resident minister at the court of Napoleon, his primary objective being the purchase of the port of New Orleans and West Florida. When bureaucratic red tape and the whims of Napoleon jeopardized that acquisition, James Monroe was dispatched as special envoy in 1803 to ease the negotiations, and within 48 hours, Napoleon offered to sell the Americans the entire Louisiana Territory: an area of 825,000 square miles, doubling the size of the US. Monroe and Livingston accepted on the spot, with their accomplishment considered a major diplomatic coup back home.
Livingston was a man of many interests that included botany, animal husbandry and mechanics. Long interested in the possibilities of steam navigation – he built some experimental steamboats in Tivoli in the 1790s – Livingston assisted Robert Fulton in the final version of his steamboat by supplying the necessary funding and helping to push through the New York State Legislature a bill that granted the two men in partnership a monopoly on steam navigation in state waters.
Upon retirement from public life, Livingston immersed himself in domestic life at Clermont, enlarging his home to accommodate the furniture he’d purchased in France. He also spent a great deal of time supervising the care of the Merino sheep that he imported from France. While the acquisition was not quite on the scale of the Louisiana Purchase, Livingston was among the first to bring the prized animals to the US.
Native to Spain, Merino sheep are valued for their extremely soft, water-resistant and long-fibered wool. Prior to the 18th century, their export out of Spain was a crime punishable by death. That changed in 1786, when King Charles III of Spain gifted his cousin, Louis XVI of France, with 366 Merino sheep, which became the founding animals at the renowned Rambouillet stud farm on the outskirts of Paris.
Livingston cross-bred his Rambouillet-born Merino sheep with domestic sheep to enlarge his flock. In 1809, he published his Essay on Sheep, which applied his thoughts on farming and the Merino sheep of Spain to his own land.
Within a few years, there was something of a mania for Merino wool sweeping the country, after a Boston-based trader in European commodities, William Jarvis, imported more than 15,000 Merino sheep to the East Coast of the US from 1810 to 1811. The sheep were dispersed across the Northeast, with eight of the animals going to Thomas Jefferson.
Textile manufacturers paid farmers $2 per pound for Merino wool at the time, while common wool sold for 37 ½ cents a pound. Common sheep sold for $2 each, while Merino rams were priced at as much as $1,500. Farmers stopped growing wheat and grain and started raising the Spanish sheep, cutting down thousands of acres of trees so the sheep could graze. Vermont had the country’s highest population of Merino sheep.
But the mania subsided by 1823, when the market became saturated and collapsed; a Merino ram could be purchased for just $50. Today there are different types of Merino sheep that were developed in various parts of the US, but most of the contemporary Merino sheep population was domesticated in New Zealand and Australia.
Merino wool continues to be prized by modern-day fiber enthusiasts for its uniformity, strength, density and fineness. And on the lawn at Clermont that once held those new-to-the-USA Merino sheep at the dawning of the 19th century, the Chancellor’s Sheep & Wool Showcase this Saturday will offer visitors the chance to purchase similarly enticing tactile and colorful yarns from many different types of sheep. The several dozen vendors and exhibitors make for a pleasingly intimate showcase, with enough yarns and fiber accessories available to make it a worthwhile excursion, but not so large that the visitor can’t see it all.
Craft guilds will demonstrate spinning and weaving throughout the day, with featured exhibitors and vendors including the Elmendorf Spinners, Apple Valley Wool Thrummers of Tivoli, Bield Farm of Clinton Corners, Birch Hollow Fibers of Poughkeepsie, Blackberry Hill Farm in Hudson, Cat’s View Farm in Germantown, Clover Brooke Farm of Hyde Park, Columbia Greene Community College and Cornell Cooperative Extension of Columbia and Greene Counties, Crippen Works of Millerton, Dashing Star Farm in Millerton, East Knoll Pottery in Torrington, Connecticut, Furry Face Fibers of Fort Edwards, Hand to Mouth Weavers of Red Hook, Hudson River Designs of Kinderhook, Hudson Valley Sheep & Wool in Red Hook, In a Spin Fiber Arts in Olivebridge, Into the Whirled in Phoenicia, On the Bend of Hannacroix, Pandia’s Jewels of Salt Point, Riverside Creations of Elka Park, Simple Creations of Wappingers Falls, Small Paws Alpaca Farm of Salt Point, Spencer Hill Naturally Dyed Yarn of Corning, Toby Roxane Designs of Saugerties, Spencertown Root and Tuber Works of Chatham, Whole Knit ‘N’ Caboodle of Delmar, Wil-Hi Farm in Tivoli, Wooly Spruce Farmstead of Chatham and Yarn Shop at Foster Sheep Farm of Schuylerville.
Family members accompanying their fiber enthusiasts will also find plenty to do. Several herding demonstrations will be offered, along with sheepshearing using three different historical techniques. Visitors can immerse themselves in the past by watching the 18th-century reenactors on hand and enjoy live traditional music, along with tasty offerings available from a few food trucks. The visitor center and gift shop will be open, and the mansion will offer tours, with the last group starting at 4 p.m. There is an additional charge for tours: $7 for adults or $6 for seniors. Kids under age 12 tour for free.
Chancellor’s Sheep & Wool Showcase, Saturday, April 21, 11 a.m.-4 p.m., $8/$10, Clermont State Historic Site, 87 Clermont Avenue, Germantown; (518) 537-6622, www.friendsofclermont.org/sheep-wool.