When it comes to traditional Idaho Basque sheep wagons, or “karro kampos,” certain rules apply, said Dave Eiguren.
The bed is always along the back wall of the wagon. The stove is on the right when you step inside. A broom hangs on the door’s right side — that’s your left if you’re stepping out. The shelves inside the wagon have wooden lips so dishes and cans don’t tumble onto the floor when the wagon is moving. At the end of the work day, the wagon is parked with its back pointing northwest.
“That’s so the sun hits you in the face and wakes you up first thing in the morning,” said Eiguren, head of Boise’s Karro Kampo Klub.
There’s room for free-form expression amid the rules of the karro kampo — which roughly translates to car camp. Some wagons have rubber wheels. Some have wooden wheels. Some have metal tops, some have canvas. Some are pulled by horses, some are pulled by pickups. But the basic box shape, measuring about 4 feet wide and 11 feet long, has remained standard.
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So, too, has the efficiency and design akin to that of a small ship. That’s fitting, since Basques were known as legendary seafarers. Storage cabinets open from the outside of the wagon to load supplies. They open from inside the wagon as well. No need to go outside in the cold to unload. Wagons comfortably fit three or four people. But sheep herders always kept five plates, said Eiguren. Out on the range, someone inevitably brought along an extra guest to dinner.
No one knows why the rules exist, he said. By now they’re tradition.
Eiguren’s father, as well as the father of his wife, Jeannie Aldape Eiguren, herded sheep after coming to the U.S., Dave’s father in Oregon, Jeannie’s father across the Boise Front. Like so many other Basque immigrants, the Eiguren families left the herding business long ago. Both of their fathers went off to World War II and chose other professions when they got home. But herding and its trappings, including sheep wagons, remain deep in the hearts of Idaho Basques, said Eiguren.
AN AMERICAN ORIGINAL
The Basque sheep wagon, he said, is an iconic invention of the American West. Besides that, people just love to look at them.
“You almost turn into a little kid. You get inside a wagon and see the plates and dishes, and salt and pepper shakers, a place for everything,” said Dave.
Said Jeannie Eiguren, “So many things our parents’ generation lived through, like living in the sheep wagons, they thought was so horrible. But we think it’s so cool. And, it’s our heritage.”
“Wagons were an upgrade from living in tents. The upgrade from wagons was getting to stay home,” quipped Dave.
He’s on a mission for Jaialdi: creating a public display of wagons at Expo Idaho. So far, he’s gotten 34 commitments. The display will include the Eigurens’ own five wagons. Two sit in their West Boise driveway, complete with retro food tins, drawer pulls made from old wooden thread spools, and quilts. Others sit in their backyard, including one made up as a playhouse for their granddaughter. It has its own set of dishes, a giant stuffed bear and other toys.
The Eigurens’ oldest wagon dates to 1907, acquired from the Aguirre family, well-known herders in the Mountain Home area. It was built by Studebaker, the first company to build commercial sheep wagons after the turn of the last century.
In the days leading up to Jaialdi, Dave Eiguren was getting his wagons into top shape for the display. Work included painting the wheels of one wagon red. The red goes with the white and green of the wagon, the Eigurens explained. Basque colors.
“This is just like car racing,” said Dave. “You go into it and you don’t want to add up all the money you spend.”
Scott Bengoechea will also display a wagon at Jaialdi. It’s one he’s rebuilt from parts he’s been collecting for years. His father, too, was in the sheep business after arriving at Ellis Island in 1917. He got on a train and ended up in Mountain Home.
“He’d never even seen a sheep before,” said Bengoechea, “but they gave him a bed roll and a pack and sent him out. He liked to say that most days, the sheep were treated better than the herders.”
NO TWO ALIKE
Bengoechea bought an old sheep wagon some years ago with the intention of restoring it. He realized it was too deteriorated, so he’s been salvaging its parts, including hand-forged iron to use in his rebuilt wagon. In the process, he found a stashed treasure, a rolled up Idaho Statesman from Christmas Day 1915. The wagon has revealed other curiosities, including a cattle brand burned into one of its wood panels. Bengoechea is hoping someone at Jaialdi will be able to identify the old insignia.
“Each wagon is individual. No two are exactly alike, because they were built with whatever was lying around,” said Bengoechea. His wagon on display will include dishes and pots and pans, as well as a 1950s-era Zenith Trans Oceanic radio. Such radios once provided a little respite, a little reminder of civilization out on the range. Today, the radio is silent. It’s hard to get batteries anymore.
Basque shepherds were not the first to use sheep wagons. Historians say the wagons’ closest ancestors were the wooden wagons, or “vardos,” used by the Romany people in Europe in the 1800s. The first Basque sheep wagons started out as feed or grain wagons. Someone got the idea of installing canvas coverings and transforming them into living spaces — moveable versions of the tiny house.
“Sheep wagons are really just Winnebagos,” said Dave Eiguren.
While sheep wagons reached their height of popularity in the American West in the 1910s, they’re by no means obsolete. Idaho sheep herders, mostly Peruvians today, still use them. Companies, including Wilson Sheep Camps in Utah, still build new camp wagons. They’re based on the classic design but offer upgrades like air conditioning and indoor showers. Any of the Eigurens’ wagons could go back out onto the range without any trouble, Eiguren said.
His son and daughter-in-law own the Basque Market on the Boise Basque Block. Dave often brings wagons to display there for special events. The wagons have been part of local parades. The Eigurens even took them to the World’s Fair in Spokane in 1974, an adventure that involved exposing the world to Basque lamb and fresh bread, roasted and baked on site. People stood in line, said Jeannie. They used the bread to mop up every bit of meat juice.
Every Dec. 31, the Eigurens warm their blankets in the dryer before taking them out into one of the wagons to ring in the new year by sleeping in a bit of living history.