It is just a snippet of footage, but a rare bit of film gives a glimpse of something that once greeted generations of Brooklynites: a flock of sheep taking a springtime stroll through Prospect Park.
The shepherd and his collies that guide the bleating herd, including some scampering lambs, were captured on film in April of 1929 by Fox Movietone News. Delightfully, the footage, apparently outtakes intended for a newsreel, includes sound. “I’d sooner be herding sheep in Prospect Park,” proclaims the shepherd when asked by his young interviewer whether he would prefer to be in Ireland. Holding a lamb in her arms, the interviewer gets in the last word, proclaiming “there’s no place like the USA.”
While the identity of the interviewer and the other girls who join in the scenes is unknown, the herder with a pipe in his mouth and collies at his feet is likely John McLaughlin, who worked as a shepherd in the park in the 1920s. One of his coworkers, collie Mike, can be heard being called by name in the clip.
McLaughlin wasn’t the only herder to work in the park and not even the most well known. He appears to have taken over primary duties when James O’Hara retired after more than 35 years on the job. Appointed in 1885, O’Hara and his collies were a popular sight on the Long Meadow and his retirement in 1922 had the New York Post declaring “lambs and babies lose old friend.”
The herd likely predated O’Hara as there are newspaper references to sheep in the park in the 1870s. In a circa 1869 report to the Brooklyn Park Commissioners, park architects Olmsted and Vaux urged that before the design of the “sweep of grass-land” could be fully experienced by visitors, it would be necessary for sheep and cattle to be allowed to graze. They noted “beautiful specimens of fine breeds” should be chosen and given suitable accommodations.
Southdown sheep, an English breed, were apparently thought suitable for the pastoral landscape, and the compact and sturdy-looking animals were popular subjects with amateur and professional artists alike. Photographs of the flock, particularly upon their first stroll of the spring or their annual shearing, appeared regularly in local papers.
The sheep were also put to work clearing out undergrowth, much like the more goats recently employed by the Prospect Park Alliance. The number of grazers seems to have fluctuated over the years and the herd was culled annually. By the summer of 1928, McLaughlin told local paper Home Talk the Item, he had 35 in his care with older sheep sold off annually and 30 to 35 lambs born each spring. Collies Mike and King helped him in his work and the sheep had fairly new quarters, a pen built for them near the zoo in 1920.
When precisely the flock stopped grazing in the Long Meadow is unclear but it seems to have been the late 1930s. They were joined by some Central Park transplants in 1934 after Commissioner Robert Moses ordered their removal from Manhattan. Annual spring references to the herd in newspapers fizzle out in 1935.
This film clip is the only known footage of the flock, although given the popularity of the attraction, more film might yet be discovered.
The clip is preserved in the Fox Movietone News Collection of the University of South Carolina Libraries. The collection is a treasure trove of snippets from the early 20th century. Other clips that might entertain lovers of Brooklyn history include a baseball game in a vacant lot, workers on the Brooklyn Bridge and a magician in Luna Park.
This story first appeared on Brownstoner.com.