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Jerry & Mary O'Leary

at their Clover Flat Home 1980
Photo By Lee Juillerat

JERRRY O'LEARY, February 1980
Interview by Lee Juillerat

Jerry O¹Leary never looked back when he left County Cork, Ireland in 1910.

³We come out here with the intention of staying and that was it,² said O¹Leary.
Like many other Irishmen, O¹Leary was searching for a better way of life
and attracted by the idea of America, where the streets were paved with gold.
In 1910 the 17-year-old O¹Leary traveled 10 days by boat to New York , where he
stayed briefly until riding a train to Alturas and boarding a stage to Lake County. F
or several years he worked as a tramp sheepman, moving herds wherever feed
was available. He saw much of Lake, Klamath and Harney counties, but by 1922
settled in the Paisley area of Lake County.

During slow seasons he sometimes headed to New York to visit relatives.
³The groom was visiting his sister looking for a very good bride, and there
I was, said O¹Leary¹s spunky wife, the former Mary Singleton. The two were
married 1927 in New York. A year later, Jeremiah, the oldest of six children,
was born. In 1980, Jerry and Mary had 37 grandchildren, many living between
Paisley and Summer Lake.

In the busiest times the O¹Learys had between 2,500 to 3,000 sheep. Two or three
herders worked during the winter while another half dozen were hired during summer
months for lambing and haying. Crews traveling from California could handle
the shearing in two or three days, but maybe it would take two weeks because
it would rain and the wool wouldn¹t dry,

O¹Leary remembered. After prices were settled with wool buyers, the sheep were
trailed to Lakeview and fat lambs were shipped by rail. In later years trucks came
to the ranch. In 1924, disease in California prevented the sale of lambs there, so Jerry
and others combined their flocks and drove them up Bear Creek to Silver Lake
and on to Bend. It took three weeks. Herders and their sheep went to the mountains
in November and returned in April.

Supplies were left near sheep camps. Although the O¹Learys always ran some
cattle, sheep dominated their ranch until 1959. ³The help got old and died off
and that finished the sheep business, O'Leary said. Jerry and Jeremiah believed the
transition from sheep to cattle has cut down on work because, ³you have don¹t have
to work them (cattle) night and day.

Jeremiah O'Leary, a one-time sheepherder and son of an Irish immigrant, celebrates a quiet moment at home with his wife, Kathleen.

Monday, March 15, 2004 Archivesn Irish ry Published March 15, 2004

SILVER LAKE - No one's ever accused Jeremiah O'Leary of being an overgrown leprechaun, not even on St. Patrick's Day.

"They've accused me of being a lot of things," says O'Leary, catching his breath after after an explosive, body-rumbling laugh. "But not that."

When St. Patrick's Day rolls around Wednesday - a day when people of Irish descent celebrate their heritage - the 75-year-old O'Leary expects he'll carry on the same way he does most days, with open pleasure at simply living life.

"I've led a very colorful life and enjoyed most every moment," says the gravel-throated O'Leary. "Oh, there's been a bump or two but, by golly, I've enjoyed myself."

Like many others of Irish descent in Lake County, O'Leary's heritage includes parents who immigrated from Ireland in the early 1900s. Like many of those early arrivals, his father herded sheep to earn his "stake," which led to his own sheep and, later, cattle ranch.

His father, also named Jeremiah, was 18 when he left County Cork, Ireland, for Lake County in 1910.

"The great story of the Irish immigration. One followed the other. I'm saying that respectfully," says O'Leary.

For many Irish, including O'Leary's father, Lake County was the ultimate destination. His father, like others, had been instructed, "Don't stop in the United States of America. Go directly to Jackie Flynn's sheep camp in Oregon."

Going to Lake County was good advice.

People like O'Leary's father found jobs as sheepherders, overseeing bands of 1,500 to 2,000 sheep. Arrangements varied, but herders were typically provided with food, sheep dogs and a sometimes horse and an ark, or wagon that provided a bed, cook stove and shelter. Depending on the arrangement, the owner kept the lambs and wool, and after two or three years the herder took possession of half the ewes.

Young Irishmen were usually lured from Ireland by family members or friends who had come out earlier, "So by golly they showed up out here. They weren't here very long and they had a business of their own," says O'Leary, who speaks from personal experience. "The sheep industry was very, very good to the O'Learys."

His father soon had his own band of sheep. As his financial situation improved, he eventually spent portions of the winters in New York City to "squire the ladies around, and who knows what else he did," imagines O'Leary with a chuckle. And, as he adds with another infectious rumbling belly-laugh, "Later, when I went to country dances, I didn't tell him what I did."During one of those visits his father met Mary Singleton, who worked as a maid. After a courtship, they were married in January 1927. Jeremiah was born May 10, 1928, the oldest of the couple's six children.

When O'Leary graduated from high school in 1946, he literally followed in his father's footsteps.

"I told my ol' dad I'll herd those sheep myself," recalls O'Leary, who herded sheep for two years. "I was 18 years old when I started. I got so I thoroughly enjoyed it. You were outside, you were the decision maker. You're out there with a band of sheep. You're alone. There were coyotes. You had to have a couple of good dogs."

O'Leary isn't romantic about the life. It was a means to an end.

"I was involved in accumulating a business and that was one way, by George, we did it," tells O'Leary. "In two or three years you had a half the band (of 1,500 sheep) paid for. Even in the stock market today, that's a pretty darn good deal. That was the grubstake."

To be a successful herder, O'Leary said it was necessary to "know what those darn sheep were going to do before they did it."

O'Leary guided his sheep on a route that went north from the family ranch at Clover Flat area near Paisley toward Christmas Valley, and then back south to the Cox Creek area 10 miles north of Lakeview.

" 'Til those sheep were paid for you never saw a darn dime," he remembers. "You went to work herding sheep with the idea you'd have some of your own. There's a lot of people that came out and saved the money and put ranches together. It bought a lot of ranches, provided a lot of jobs."

While sheep are seldom seen in large numbers in the Klamath Basin now, a century ago they by the hundreds of hundreds of thousands.

O'Leary says records show there were 300,000 sheep on Lake County's tax roll in the late 1930s, "and knowing the Irish, you know darn good and well there was 500,000 that weren't there" on the tax rolls.

After two years, O'Leary worked 10 years with his father then entered a decade-long partnership with his brother John. He had his own ranch for several years, but now helps his son Tom, who has a cattle ranch just a few miles from O'Leary's Silver Lake home.

After 1948, O'Leary never again herded sheep. And, soon after the 1962 death of their herder Dick Nolan, the family completely switched to a cattle-only operation.

"That's when the sheep industry as I knew it went to heck. We stayed with it a couple more years, but it didn't work very well."

He credits the sheep industry with helping his family, and many other families.

"It's an industry that needs more respect than it's gotten through the years," believes O'Leary. "A good sheepman can always run cows, but a cowman can't always run sheep. Sheep require so much more care. You can't leave them alone at all."

When it comes to the luck o' the Irish, O'Leary believes he cashed in when he met "a very lovely young lady" at a 1953 Fort Rock dance. He and that lady, Kathleen, were married in 1955. They have five children.

Always vocal, O'Leary has been active with livestock organizations. He also spent 6 1/2 years as a Lake County commissioner, often confronting and challenging environmental groups and their leaders.

Life in recent years - he and Kathleen moved from Paisley to Silver Lake five years ago - has been more laid back. Most mornings he meets friends at the Silver Lake Cafe to slurp cups of coffee and talk politics. He checks in at Tom's ranch and, while doing chores in his pickup, is part of Rush Limbaugh's amen choir. And, he confesses, he usually finds time for at least a quick afternoon nap.

While he takes pride in his Irish heritage, O'Leary has never lost any sleep about going to Ireland

As O'Leary explains, "There was nothing back there to interest my dad, so why should I go?"


2007 Grand and Wee Leprechauns eager to celebrate 22nd annual Irish Days

Irish blood runs green and true in the O’Leary family, as Paisley’s John O’Leary follows in his older brother’s footsteps in serving as the Grand Leprechaun for this year’s Irish Days festival.
John’s brother, Jeremiah, of Silver Lake, served as the Grand Leprechaun for the 2006 running of the two-decade-plus old community event known as Irish Days, so perhaps a little luck o’ the Irish goes a long ways.
John, 76, is a native Lake County resident, born April 4, 1930, in Lakeview, and has direct familial ties to the family’s home country, Ireland, as both his mother, Mary Singleton, and father, Jeremiah O’Leary, emigrated to the United States from Ireland. Mary was from Cullen, while Jeremiah originally called Bally Desmond home, John said.
“My mother and father both came from Ireland,” he explained, “and settled in Paisley. That’s where we’ve been ever since.”
John was one of four children, consisting of three sisters and two brothers, and spent his formative years in Paisley, though he said he eventually attended grade school in Bend. In 1948, he attended high school at Columbia Prep in Portland and following graduation he moved on to Oregon State University — then known as Oregon State College —for two years.
In 1951, John joined the United States armed services, serving in the Air Force for four years during the Korean War.
John attained the rank of staff sergeant, serving as an airplane and engine mechanic in the Strategic Air Command and, in 1955, concluded his service to return home and work on the O’Leary family’s ranch in Paisley. Established in 1924, the O’Leary ranch is spread across approximately 10,000 acres and currently contains 900 head of cattle. Up until the late 1950s, John said, sheep ranching was dominant, but that practice gradually gave way to the much more profitable cattle ranching.
A year later in 1956, John married Marie Cray at the Holy Family Catholic Church in Burns, and the couple settled down, raising six children. They have a total of 13 grandchildren, of which all but four are in Lakeview, John said. Their daughter, Maureen Hall, is currently working as a registered nurse in Juno, Alaska.
John speaks fondly of his past years and current life of living in Lake County, commenting particularly on the family-friendly atmosphere and tight-knit relationships held dearly by its residents.
“It’s been a real great way to live,” he said, “and a great place to be.”