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Sheep wagons as classic campervan: the Airstream of pioneers

Sheep wagons were once a common mobile home in the American West. These tiny structures (usually 7 to 8 feet wide and about 12 to 16 feet long) were used by sheep herders for months on end as they migrated across grazing land with their flocks.

Kim Vader’s family began herding sheep in Idaho in the early 1900s. Eight years ago, his sister wanted a wagon to use as a guesthouse that would pay homage to their sheep ranching grandfather. Vader, having spent 3 decades as a craftsman, agreed to build her one with his wife Kathy.

Word of their build got around and today, they’ve built, or rebuilt, 50 wagons for modern shepherds and those looking for a more original second home. Each wagon is custom and takes them 3 months (with 3 people working) to complete. They often build for the descendants of sheep ranchers who are looking to recreate some of their family history.

The Vaders built their personal wagon as a tribute to Kim’s paternal and maternal grandparents- both sheep ranchers. Parked in the front yard of their Boise, ID home (and workshop), it serves as a display for their business, Idaho Sheep Camp.

The Vaders build their sheep camps with 2” by 6” tongue and groove “all glued and screwed together” sitting on top of running gear. The curved tops are built with bows made from steam-bent ash covered in canvas. Their wagon is equipped with a cast iron stove, a slide-out table, a queen-sized bed with a bed-in-a-cupboard beneath it for the grandkids, a portable RV-style toilet under one bench and a cooler (as refrigerator) under another.

Kim’s cousins are still sheep ranching and use the wagons as seasonal mobile homes for their shepherds, which is not so uncommon in the industry. “There was a time there they decided to go to travel trailers, but after a year they decided travel trailers didn’t work so they went back to the old sheep wagons,” explains Kim. “I think the construction of them [the travel trailers] just didn’t hold up. Too many foo foos and too many things to come apart and they just didn’t hold up.”

* Idaho Sheep Camp workshop video filmed by Luke Holley.