Flock of sheep on Mutton Hill continue to tell the story of Akron

By Melanie Mohler for TDS

Photos by Melanie Mohler

Driving down Copley Road as it turns into South Maple Street, you may notice the sign for the Simon Perkins Stone Mansion and wonder why it has a sheep on it. If you look closer in the summer months, you may even see a small flock beyond the property’s stone fence. 

Why are there sheep outside a historic mansion managed by the Summit County Historical Society? You could say it’s history repeating itself.

Throughout the 1840s and 1850s, Colonel Simon Perkins and abolitionist John Brown were business partners in the wool industry. Between 1,300 to 1,500 Merino-Saxony sheep were kept on land owned by Perkins and were cared for by Brown, says Leianne Neff Heppner, President and CEO of the Summit County Historical Society.

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Perkins’ land, which included parts of what are today the Akron Zoo and Perkins Park, was rocky, hilly and not ideal for growing crops, but perfect for keeping sheep. Neighbors nicknamed the area Mutton Hill.

Perkins and Brown’s business became quite successful and produced award-winning wool, which was recognized worldwide. Within the first two years, Brown was traveling extensively to the East Coast and Europe to sell their wool. 

“It’s been said that [Perkins and Brown] had the best wool East of the Mississippi River,” Neff Heppner says.

The business venture ended in the early 1850s, as Brown wanted to move to New York to continue his abolition work.

More than 150 years later, sheep have returned to Mutton Hill thanks to the work of the historical society’s former board chair Dave Lieberth.

The sheep first reappeared at a pop-up event during PorchRokr in 2014. Lieberth wanted to see how people would respond to sheep on the property. 

The project was a success and sheep returned to Mutton Hill during the summer months in 2016. The historical society partnered with The Spicy Lamb Farm to borrow lambs for the summer. The farm also connected the historical society to Edie Steiner, who is now the volunteer Shepherdess of Mutton Hill.

Steiner, a music therapist for Akron Public Schools, was introduced to the world of sheep and herding several years ago through her first border collie Modibo. She says that the dog wanted to be an “urban herder,” meaning he would chase after cars.

After taking Modibo to obedience classes, Steiner learned that giving him access to herding livestock could curb that dangerous behavior.

Steiner connected with a local farmer who trained working dogs, such as border collies, which have thousands of years of instincts and natural ability to herd livestock. 

Brown likely used dogs to care for such a large flock on Mutton Hill, a tradition now carried on by Steiner.

Today, Steiner has four border collies that regularly herd the sheep at Mutton Hill: Rudy, Luke, Lincoln, and Owen. Rudy is the oldest, having just turned 14 in August. Owen is the youngest of the group and is the namesake of John Brown’s father and also one of his sons.

But Steiner does more than just conduct herding demonstrations with the sheep. 

“I go there every day, just like John Brown did, and I care for the sheep. I check on them after storms…I make sure they have clean water. I make sure they’re healthy, just like he did,” Steiner says.

Steiner’s husband, Christopher, and two historical society volunteers, Gina and Emily, also help care for the flock. There are also a few people who live across the street from the mansion in Saferstein Towers that look out for the sheep and visit them often.

The first four years of the sheep program, the historical society kept Dorset sheep. This breed looks like a typical sheep and shares ancestry with the Merino-Saxony breeds that were originally cared for on Mutton Hill. 

Last year, Steiner connected with a new farm and brought in a different breed of sheep, the Katahdin. Katahdin are hair sheep, meaning they do not produce wool and do not need to be sheared. This breed can come in many different colors, something that Steiner particularly liked about the breed. 

“We picked sheep that we thought were representative of the many different colors that represent the people of the city of Akron,” Steiner says.

This year, the historical society has ten male Katahdin sheep. They were born between February and March earlier this year. 

Neff Heppner says that one of Steiner’s goals is to educate people about the diversity of sheep. And there are many opportunities to do so with the Mutton Hill programming that the historical society offers.

Mutton Hill Mondays and Working Dog Wednesdays are monthly events. The former program discusses the history of Mutton Hill while the latter talks more about herding dogs, with a focus on border collies.

Farm Fridays, offered every week, are geared toward younger children and cover a wide variety of topics pertaining to the history of Summit county. The historical society has also partnered with the Akron-Summit County Public Library for “Stories with the Sheep,” another program aimed toward preschool through first grade students.

“The sheep program…has allowed the historical society’s age range to drop dramatically,” says Neff Heppner.

In addition, the sheep and herding demonstrations can be seen at the historical society’s Family Fun Day. The history of Mutton Hill is discussed during tours of the mansion and the John Brown house.

The historical society hosted a few camps this year. One in particular is the Legacy Leader Camp with middle school students from Akron Public Schools. Steiner uses the sheep and the dogs to teach qualities of leadership in a creative yet thoughtful way.

New groups of people, both those who love the sheep and those who adore the working dogs, have been attracted to the historical society.

The historical society plans on hosting a special program where each of the ten sheep can be “adopted” for a fee which includes a small party with herding demonstrations, being able to name the sheep, a photo with the sheep and two Zeber-Martell ornaments that depict a border collie and a sheep in front of the Perkins mansion.

The ornaments are also available for purchase in the historical society’s gift shop. Proceeds from the ornaments benefit programming on Mutton Hill.

The sheep are a way to not only teach about the flock, but also about John Brown, Neff Heppner says. Brown took great care of his flock in ways that were considered unusual at the time but are common practice today, such as keeping the sheep clean and caring for them if they were injured instead of letting them fend for themselves. She also notes that Brown supposedly knew all of his sheep by their faces and treated them as if they were his own children.

Steiner reminds herself of Brown’s philosophy of animal husbandry when caring for the current sheep.

“John Brown was really passionate about sheep that were happy and healthy… So I think that it’s my duty to make sure our sheep are well cared for,” Steiner says.

Ultimately, the historical society hopes to keep Merino-Saxony sheep at Mutton Hill again as Perkins and Brown did. They would like to be able to keep a flock year-round, but that would require a barn during the winter months.

Both Steiner and Neff Heppner would like to conduct more workshops and educational programming revolving around the sheep, not only for children but for adults as well.

 “[The sheep are] a fantastic opportunity to bring history to the present, Neff Heppner says.

You can learn more about the history and current events at Mutton Hill on the Summit County Historical Society’s website, summithistory.org and on their Facebook page. Goodbye to Ewe, the final event with the sheep at Mutton Hill for the season, will be held in late September or early October. Until then, you can visit the sheep for free during daylight hours.

Melanie Mohler is a West Hill resident with a love for baking, cross-stitch and local history. 

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