REED POINT — Late Sunday afternoon, about halfway between Columbus and Big Timber, a flock of 435 sheep swept through a town of less than 200 people.
Through most of the year, Reed Point is a quiet Western town situated between the Yellowstone River and Interstate 90. But each Labor Day weekend, the community swells with thousands of vacationers attracted to the tiny frontier town’s premier event — the Great Montana Sheep Drive.
The daylong event on Sunday included a sheep-shearing contest, classic car show, lamb cook-off, parade (billed as the “Biggest Little Parade in Montana”), live auction and a shoot-em-up “Wild West Show” put on by a travelling theater troupe from Bismarck, North Dakota.
But the real excitement arrives with the annual “Running of the Sheep,” which is exactly what it sounds like.
The tradition began in 1989 as a response to a more traditional bull-running event scheduled for the same Sunday in Roundup, according to Diana Hahn, one of the event’s founders. Hahn’s husband had jokingly suggested they get local sheep herders to hold a sheep run through the main drag of Reed Point, and the idea stuck.
In the first year, Hahn said, the sheep run drew an estimated 16,000 people to the town of less than 200.
“It overwhelmed us, it really did,” she said, adding with a smile, “We pulled a lot of people out of Roundup, and they pulled some of the Highway Patrol out of Roundup – they had to come direct traffic.”
The Great Montana Sheep Drive has since endured as a major fundraiser for the town’s library, K-12 school and fire department. Hahn says it now typically brings 3,000 to 5,000 people each year, and nets an average of $ 7,000 to $ 8,000 in proceeds for the Reed Point Community Club, the group that organizes the event.
A more recent event added to the list is the hay bale race, in which teams of three compete to push a massive hay bale along a delineated track, bring it to a stop and roll it back again. While similar competitions exist elsewhere, local rancher Dan Replogle said he and some friends simply thought up the idea five or six years ago and decided to weave it into the other sheep run festivities.
“We were drinking one night and thought, ‘Hey, we ought to take a 1,200-pound bale of hay down here and see who can roll it the fastest,’” Replogle remembers. “It’s funny, you can see the testosterone get going; everybody thinks they’re a tough guy. But there’s an art to rolling that hay bale.”
After most of the other events had concluded, the crowd filled the edges of the street at 4 p.m., grinning with anticipation despite the soaring afternoon temperatures and craning their necks for a glimpse of the first sheep rounding the intersection to begin their dash.
The first of the two flocks, this year totaling 435 sheep, made the gauntlet fairly smoothly. They charged blindly between the thick crowds, trotting north toward the train tracks in pursuit of a pair of rams led by an event volunteer.
As overzealous children and others in the crowd edged in closer to the street, however, the second wave became confused midway through, stopping periodically when the lead runner in the flock would come to a stubborn halt. The efforts of event volunteers eventually got the animals started again, but were again thwarted when a loose Doberman puppy sprinted excitedly out into the street, causing another traffic jam. With encouragement from the crowd, however, the sheep again regained their progress and completed the run.
Still, the run was relatively orderly compared to previous years. One year, a sheep herder trailed 3,000 animals into town, with predictable results.
“That was chaos,” Hahn said with a laugh.
Many out-of-towners make a point of returning to the sheep drive each year, attracted by the enduring sense of humor in the tiny frontier town.
“We were driving by, and we saw all the cars parked on the side of the highway, so we thought, ‘What the heck?’” Bozeman resident Sue Younkin said of her and her husband’s first visit to the Sheep Drive, three years ago. She said they haven’t missed the annual sheep drive since. “For me, it’s the small-town feel. You can tell everybody knows each other.”
Her husband, Bruce Younkin, added, “This is about as authentic as it gets.”