Having a wild time at Chickasaw Farm

REED CITY – When Sheila Henry forgets how old one of her animals is, she counts the letters in the alphabet between their name and P.

Beginning in 1993, when Chickasaw Farm was established, Pat and Sheila Henry have named each of their animals in alphabetical order by year.

“Penelope was born this year, the “P” year. Lingerie was born in the “L” year,” Henry said. “We try to name them alphabetically, and that way we always know how old they are.”

Each growing up in Detroit, where farm life was out of reach, Pat and Sheila Henry moved with their sons, Matt and Nick, to their home on North Beach Avenue, just outside of Osceola County in Reed City.

The family set up a farm on 80 acres of hilly land and named it in honor of Pat’s favorite dog, Chickasaw. The farm had four sheep, a few dogs and a garden.

Nineteen years later, the farm is now home to 28 sheep, three alpacas, one horse, 15 rabbits, ten hens, two dogs and many cats, each animal with their own name and personality.

Though she has a certain fondness for Larry the rabbit, who came to the farm as “Lucy,” each animal at the farm is special, Henry said, even the cats they share with the neighbors.

The adoration of each animal doesn’t stop when they leave the farm.

After being left with a pile of sheep wool after a few years with the animals, Henry found a way to combine her love for

her animals with a long-time hobby.

“I thought, there’s got to be something to do with this (wool), and I’ve been knitting and crocheting since I was a kid,” Henry said.

She visited Fiber Festival in Allegan County where she learned how to spin wool into yarn, a skill that turned into a business.

The sheep and alpacas are sheered near the end of May every year, and the excess rabbit fur is plucked every few months. The wool and fur is sent to a mill to be cleaned, where it comes back as a clean, softer material called roving. She then spins the roving into yarn, which she uses to knit sweaters, mittens, hats, rugs, Santa beards and more.

“Once you get the hang of it, (spinning) is as easy as it looks,” Henry said. “Its very relaxing.”

Henry and five other spinners, known as “Dances with Wool,” sell their items in a store next to her house. The group also sets up a booth at numerous spinning events throughout the year, dying some yarn with Kool-Aid to change the color.

“We get together and just have fun,” Henry said.

After years of participating in the craft, Henry has accumulated piles of fur and wool from her own animals as well as friends’ animals.

“I have a whole back porch of fleeces that people have given me,” Henry said. “Even if we don’t have sheep, we’ll still have wool.”

Though their animals are not their whole lives but make their lives whole, Pat and Sheila have begun to slowly sell their animals, decreasing the head count on the farm in hopes of having more time to travel.

The bachelor herd of 28 alpacas has dwindled to three, the farm’s flock of pigeons was sold a few months ago and the lambs also will soon have new owners.

When Matt and Nick graduated from Reed City High School in 2005 and moved out of the state, Henry said the work load became too much for she and Pat to handle.

“With the boys gone, there’s no one to do chores,” Henry said. “I had to hire someone to come clean.”

When Pat retires in two years, the pair plans to travel during the winter months and come back to Reed City during the summer. They will have less animals than they do now, but will keep the animals who are “winking at them,” like Penelope the lamb, Henry said.

The few sheep that stay on the farm will help with chores, “mowing and fertilizing” the lawn.

“We’re never going to be totally without animals,” Henry said. “We love it.”