The Basque sheepmen of Kern County

A vanishing breed in a modern world

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. - The Basque culture has deep roots in Kern County. 

For well over a hundred years Basque sheepmen migrated here from Europe to raise sheep and create a better life for themselves, but it's an American dream that is beginning to fade. 

"I was born in the mountainous region of the Basque country," said Martin Etchamendy, 78.   

Oh the stories some of the men at the 80th Annual Sheepmen's Picnic could tell.

"I came to America in 1952.  I never felt sorry that I came to the United States," said Paco Iturriria, 83.

They came to America searching for a better life. 

"It's inspiring.  I see these men that came you know a lot of them came from nothing.  They came over here and they built their lives, they raised their families and they built their reputations.  The Basque reputation in Bakersfield it's pretty well respected and a lot of it has to do with the men that are in that building today," said Frankie Iturrira, 43, Paco Iturrira's son. 

Basque country is an area in the western Pyrenees that straddles the border between France and Spain. 

Although technically not a country, it has it's own culture, ethnicity and language.

From the mid 1800's to roughly the 1970's Basque men emigrated to America to raise sheep. 

"I raised my family with sheep," Etchamendy said. 

" I had very good luck and had very good success.  I learned so much.  I'm so happy.  I'm so glad I came to this country," Paco Iturriria said. 

Their skills as sheepmen were greatly valued.  

"I was in great demand for being a sheep herder.  To be honest, I enjoy being around my sheep a lot," Etchamendy said. 

But it's a way of life that seems to be disappearing. 

Young sheepmen are hard to come by. 

"The young people they don't like this kind of living," Iturriria said. 

"I think the world is changing all over, not only in America.  The space age, the computer age and the kids go to school and they get educated and they learn how to earn money without sweating as much as we do," Etchamendy said.

In the room at the 80th Annual Sheepmen's Picnic sat some of the great sheepmen of Kern County - a dying breed. 

"Oh to live with mother nature.  Oh that was my dream.  I love it.  I still do love it," Etchamendy said. 

 

 

These are the types of stories 17's Tabatha Mills loves to tell. 

If you know about an interesting story like this, let her know. 

Send Tabatha an email at: TabathaMills@KGET.com

 

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