Manhattan’s Central Park has all the features of a great public space: It’s car-free, features a range of flora and fauna, and anyone can access it.
Before Central Park became the landmark it is today, a 15-acre swath of the park had an unusual purpose in the 19th century.
Dubbed Sheep Meadow, the reserve hosted around 200 pedigree Southdown sheep for 70 years. Visitors would watch the flock of sheep while they grazed. The idea was to help Sheep Meadow further the mission of Central Park, envisioned by its architects as a refuge from the stresses of urban living.
Take a look at the meadow’s history below:
In 1858, architects Frederick Law Olmsted and Calvert Vaux designed Manhattan’s Central Park, which spans 843 acres.
Source: NYC Parks
Olmsted and Vaux originally reserved 15 acres of the park for military drills and exhibitions. They later realised that a quiet park would probably not be the best place for this.
To make way for the new public space, the city forced Irish, German, and African-American immigrants from their homes, which were bulldozed.
In 1864, the architects persuaded park commissioners to add 200 pedigree Southdown sheep there and call the area Sheep Meadow.
Source: Modern Farmer
They hoped that the wooly animals would elicit idyllic images of traditional English pastures.
Most of the time, the public couldn’t visit Sheep Meadow. But people could watch the sheep from afar.
The sheep slept in a nearby barn next to a Victorian-style building. Twice per day, a shepherd would bring the animals over a crossing to the park and disrupt carriage traffic in the process.
The City of New York paid for the flock’s upkeep. But the animals also helped mow the lawn, and their wool was auctioned off.
People could visit the sheep during the day at the barn and building, where the shepherd lived with his family.
As part of the park’s menagerie (which later became the Central Park Zoo), camels came to Sheep Meadow periodically. One pair of camels named the Volsteads was particularly beloved by New Yorkers.
For 70 years, the sheep stayed at Sheep Meadow. In 1934, Central Park commissioner Robert Moses moved them to Prospect Park in Brooklyn.
The animals were moved again to the Catskill Mountains during the Great Depression, largely due to fears that impoverished and hungry New Yorkers would capture and eat them.
Over the next few decades, Sheep Meadow took on new uses. In this 1947 photo in the park, Army officials are carrying a casket containing a soldier who died during World War II.
On most days, Sheep Meadow served as a hangout spot where visitors sunbathed.
It also became the site of political protests against the Vietnam War. This 1968 photo shows folk singer Joan Baez and her husband Dave Harris surrounded by reporters at a draft resisters demonstration:
In the 1960s, New Yorkers hosted several protests, called “be-ins,” against the war and racism.
An estimated 10,065 people participated in the 1967 Easter be-in at Sheep Meadow.
Source: Village Voice
And on June 28, 1970, there was an LGBT be-in to commemorate the first anniversary of the Stonewall riots.
Crowds have also gathered in Sheep Meadow for major cultural events, including a Barbra Streisand concert in 1967 and the 1969 Apollo moon landing. Here’s a 1996 photo of visitors relaxing on its grassy turf:
Sheep Meadow hasn’t changed much since then. But the cityscape behind it certainly has.
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