SEBRING -Since 1965, Wisconsin native Roger Douglas has been part of a rare breed of tradesmen who shear the thick, woollen coats of sheep once or twice a year.
And Douglas wears the scars of his profession.
Remnants of a long laceration are still evident across the palm of his left hand, the result of a rush job he was doing as a favor.
"You have to know what you're doing. If you get hurt, it can put you right out of business fast," explained Douglas, who learned his trade at the University of Wisconsin.
He then took a week of intensive training from Curt Olson at the University of South Dakota to perfect his shearing technique.
"It is not just giving a haircut; there is a lot more to it," said Douglas, a five time winner of the Wisconsin Fair shearing competition. He has also vied against competitors from around the world in Denver's National Western Stock Show sheep shearing contest.
"It is the only job where man, animal and machine come together," Douglas remarked.
Ewes weighing around 320 pounds and rams that can reach a size of 500 pounds are wrangled, held in position and shorn with electric clippers and combs to make it easier for the animals to move around and to prevent them from overheating. The long, bulky fleece can also become mud-stained and matted if it is not removed regularly.
While shearing can be done year-round, Douglas' busy season usually starts in March and runs until July. Often shearing alone, bent over for eight to 10 hours a day, seven days a week, this tall, tanned outdoorsman works on 250 farms throughout Wisconsin, Illinois and Iowa, shaving on average 120 to 180 ewes and rams each day.
"The best I've had is 188 in an eight-hour day," he remarked with pride.
The eight-foot-tall burlap bags of woolen fleece are then loaded and sold to distributors to make socks, sweaters and even products like paint rollers.
"I've known Roger since he was a young man, when he shorn and stored wool on his parent's farm," said Greg Groenewold, president of Groenewold Fur and Wool in Forreston, Ill. "He is a very good shearer, and I have a lot of respect for him."
Douglas said that while there are approximately 37 flocks of sheep in Florida, as well as the growing popularity of alpaca farms, he is not looking for anymore clients. His reputation keeps him exceptionally busy.
"It grinds on you after a while. That's why I come down here," said Douglas from the Sebring home he shares with his wife, Sandy, a family consumer education teacher who retired in June.
Since her retirement and with family nearby, the couple plans to spend more time at the house in the Jackson Heights subdivision they purchased in 2000.
The two both grew up on sheep farms in the agricultural community surrounding Janesville, Wisc. They met at 4-H when they were 12 years old.
A lifetime member of the FAA, Douglas said he is ready to slow down. He's enjoying remodeling his house, working in the yard, visiting their two children and three grandsons, and restoring classic vehicles.
In his garage sits an immaculate blue 1973 T-top corvette stingray, sporting collector's plates.
The car that he purchased and began restoring in 1999 has been a labor of love, with a rebuilt engine put in since the move to Florida.
"I had a '73 corvette back when I was dating Sandy," reminisced Douglas. His collection also includes 1970, 1973 and 1981 Chevy trucks that he works on when at his home in Milton, Wisc.
Currently, he is restoring a classic Daisy Red Ryder BB gun. Though Douglas doesn't know how old his gun is, the original lever-action, spring-piston BB repeater that was built to look like a Winchester rifle was first introduced in 1938.
An antique scale owned by his grandfather that was used to weigh feed bags is another of his prized restorations.
Looking back at his 48 years as a shearer, Douglas said the highlight of his career came when he had the opportunity to work for two years with a crew of 23, traveling with their own equipment trailers to ranches throughout Montana, South Dakota and Wyoming.
"You'd be working on 3,000 head at a time at a ranch. Everything was set up; I could just sit there and shear," he recalled.
"Now, there are probably only three or four good shearers left in Wisconsin," said Douglas. "It is a dying art."