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John Peavey Leaves Behind a Love of the Land and Lamb
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John and Diane Peavey were named Wagon Days Grand Marshals in 2021.
 
 
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Tuesday, June 18, 2024
 

STORY AND PHOTOS BY KAREN BOSSICK

When John Peavey found himself enamored with a young woman working in public policy in Washington, D.C., he invited her over to a lamb dinner on New Year’s Eve. Then the third-generation sheep rancher invited her to spend the summer at his ranch in central Idaho where, he promised, she could be free of distractions to pursue her writing.

Diane Josephy was traveling with her parents across the country from their home in Connecticut when they looked up from a restaurant table in Grand, Island, Neb., to see a grinning man in a cowboy hat. John Peavey had swooped in to pick her up in his 1959 single-engine Cessna 1892, saving her a few more days of driving.

Stories like this is what made John Peavey a larger-than-life figure as a sheep rancher, an Idaho state senator and co-founder of the Trailing of the Sheep Festival, which has garnered a myriad of Best Fall Festival accolades.

 
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John Peavey was delighted to see his dream of the Good Shepherd Monument in Hailey become a reality in 2021.
 

Peavey passed away on Father’s Day—Sunday, June 16--at his home in Indian Creek, surrounded by family. He was 90 years old.

“He was a pretty amazing guy and my best friend,” said Diane Josephy Peavey on Monday. “He was so much a part of the ranching culture, so much a part of getting Idaho out of the last century and into the present. He saw things that needed to be done and he worked to get them done.”

John Peavey grew up in Twin Falls but spent summers at his grandfather’s Flat Top Sheep Ranch near Carey, his father having died in a hunting accident on the Snake River when he was 9. He earned an engineering degree at Northwestern University, then in 1961 took over the sheep and cattle ranch that his grandfather John Thomas—a banker and U.S. Senator—had created out of homestead parcels during the 1920s.

For a cowboy it was an idyllic life, living beneath a butte bearing the remains of Scottish sheepman James Laidlaw who settled the ranch. His L-shaped ranch home pieced out of three cabins built in 1870 at the old mining site of Muldoon was warmed by an antique wood-burning stove in the kitchen. A creek ran nearby.

 
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The Trailing of the Sheep Festival that John Peavey co-founded was awarded the American Sheep Industry Association’s Industry Innovation Award for improving the American sheep industry in a game-changing way.
 

Peavey succeeded his mother Mary Brooks, who had married U.S. Sen. Curly Brooks, in the Idaho Senate in 1969 when she was tabbed to serve as director of the U.S. Mint under presidents Nixon and Ford. He served in the Senate from 1969 to 1976 and from 1978 to 1994.

He started off as Republican but switched parties after incurring the ire of fellow Republicans for challenging Idaho Power’s bid to build a coal-fired plant in the mid-1970s, rightfully claiming that Idaho Power would have enough hydropower to make the coal-fired plant unnecessary if it protected its water rights at Swan Falls Dam. He helped found the Idaho Conservation League and, succeeded in passing a Sunshine Law mandating campaign disclosures by ballot initiative.

“He loved to put bills up to the floor that he knew had no chance of passing, even though he thought they were a good idea,” said Norma Douglas, who worked on Peavey’s campaigns. “He wanted to get them on the record so voters could see which way legislators voted. He would not be silenced.”

Wendy Jaquet substituted for Peavey when he was out herding sheep. A breast cancer survivor, she successfully introduced a bill on breast cancer screening with the help of a senator Peavey asked to coach her.

 
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Ketchum Mayor Neil Bradshaw introduces Diane and John Peavey to the Wagon Days crowd in 2021.
 

“It was a great experience and ignited my interest in serving in the legislature,” said Jaquet, who returned as a representative. “He was open and willing to talk to constituents about issues.”

Jaquet learned what not to do when running after she conducted a write-in campaign on Peavey’s behalf in the primary.

“In those days, you had to have 50 people sign a petition. He had 50 signatures, but it turned out one of those persons was not a registered voter. So, I called on his behalf from an office above Enoteca Restaurant. And Diane came up with the idea for little labels we could put on the ballots. I learned from that you should get more signatures than you need.”

Peavey supported efforts by Blaine County Recreation District to build a bike path on the Union Pacific Railroad right of way, provided he and John Faulkner could continue to use the sheep driveway twice a year for sheep migrating to and from summer pastures.

 
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John Peavey loved the land that makes up the Flat Top Sheep Ranch.
 

Immediately, Peavey began getting calls from bicyclists angry about the sheep leaving turds on their new bike path. After reflection, John and Diane decided it was an opportunity to teach people about the 150-year history of the sheep industry in the Wood River Valley and invited locals to come out and trail the sheep through Ketchum to Hailey.

The five-day Trailing of the Sheep Festival that sprang from that has eclipsed Ketchum Wagon Days. In 2021 it attracted 25,000 people from as far away as Korea, Switzerland and Wales, pumping $6.2 million into the local economy with people flocking to eat lamb, enjoy a folklife fair, view sheep dog trials and watch the sheep parade.

When CBS Sunday Morning looked for something to counter the doom and gloom of the weeks after the 9011 terrorist attacks, they found it amidst 1,500 struttin’ mutton.

“I love hearing from people that they love connecting with things that can disappear,” Peavey said at the time. “This festival has become huge for reconnecting people with the land, with a way of life many no longer are connected to.”

The burgeoning interest in lamb products generated by the festival also tickled Peavey who used to throw a fit when he went into Wood River Valley restaurants looking for lamb that wasn’t on the menu.

“Lamb is the best protein around,” he said.

"John was one of the really good guys, a humble, soft-spoken, hard-working longtime rancher - a committed caretaker of the land and animals and family that he loved," said Carol Waller, who as director of the Sun Valley/Ketchum Chamber helped the Peavey's launch the Trailing of the Sheep Festival. "But he was also a strong leader and a true visionary. And he knew how to get things done in a collaborative way, which is why the Trailing of the Sheep Festival was born.

"He found meaningful way to address a potential conflict by inviting the community to learn more about the heritage of sheep ranching in the west and in the process, created an internationally acclaimed event that is beloved by the community and visitors from around the world. To be honest, he thought the idea of running a sheep parade down Main Street Ketchum was a little crazy at first, but he understood the potential and made it happen"

Peavey ran the ranch for 60 years before handing it over to his son Tom. But he and Diane still made plenty of trips from their home in Indian Creek to check on the sheep. In 2017 and 2018 they risked their lives saving livestock after fires sparked by men shooting at explosive targets sent flames roaring across the ranch.

Peavey leaves behind his wife Diane, children Tom, David and Karen and a host of grandchildren, including Cory who is the fifth-generation to become involved in running the Flat Top Sheep Ranch.

“My grandfather taught me a love and appreciation for living with the land out here,” he said. “He gently carved impressions into my Western spirit like little arborglyphs hidden in aspen trees.”

John Peavey also leaves behind a conservation easement that he said ensures the ranch will look as it does now a hundred years from now.

“I love looking over this land in early summer when there’s still snow on the Pioneer Mountains,” he said as he surveyed the ranch a few years ago. “I love this land.”

 

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