Many Beavers have participated in the Olympics over the years, but not one of them has done it the way four Oregon Staters and members of an iconic Oregon ranch family have done it for this year’s Winter Olympics in Sochi, Russia.
About 5.6 million yards of yarn from Oregon’s vast Imperial Stock Ranch went into the sweaters designed by Ralph Lauren for the U.S. team’s appearance in the opening ceremonies.
Covering some 50 square miles of the high desert — about 120 miles east of Portland and 60 miles south of The Dalles — the ranch is owned by Dan and Jeanne Carver. He earned a bachelor’s in business administration technology from OSU in 1956, and she earned a master’s in physical education in 1979.
Son Blaine Carver runs the day-to-day operations; he earned his bachelor’s in agricultural business management from the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences program at Eastern Oregon University in La Grande in 2000, while Blaine’s wife Keelia, manager of the warehouse part of the yarn operation, graduated from the Corvallis campus in 2008 with dual bachelor degrees in chemistry and environmental science.
Steeped in history
The Imperial Stock Ranch was founded in 1871 by Richard Hinton, who first lived in a cave he dug on the property and eventually grew the mostly sheep operation to where it paid taxes in seven Oregon counties. In 1988 the Carvers became the third family to own the spread. The ranch headquarters complex is a National Historic District; almost all of its original buildings are still in use.
The holdings remain large enough that Dan Carver can stand on one of his bunchgrass-covered headlands, peer across miles of hills and valleys and still not see the edge of the property. But Imperial is much smaller than it was in the old days, and most of its business is done in the cattle and crop operations. Market changes just about killed the sheep industry in Oregon in 1999 and 2000.
Faced with the unacceptable prospect of shutting a part of the operation that linked Imperial to its origins, Jeanne and Dan decided to see if making their own branded yarn could help them keep the sheep business afloat. Imperial Yarn was born.
A one-time collegiate hurdler with a strong competitive streak, Jeanne hired hand-knitters to produce garments and discovered U.S. yarn-making and dying operations one at a time, while also signing up yarn stores and building a mail-order business. Early on she had so much trouble finding an American company to dye the yarn that the only color available was white. The Carvers bought some black sheep from another ranch so they could add a second shade — gray.
These days the yarn is available in a seemingly endless palette of colors and is sold in 300 stores. The specialty knitwear business is booming. A new, Imperial-branded fashion line of women’s clothing is set to launch this fall.
And that’s pretty much how things stood when Jeanne took a break from the unending chores one summer day in 2012 to sit on the patio behind the family home and return a batch of phone calls.
One caller in particular was irritatingly persistent; he kept interrupting as she worked her way down the list. She hung up on him at least twice after telling him she answered her calls in the order they’d come in. She told him he was number nine.
“Finally I called him back. He starts right in with all these questions about the yarn, and I said, ‘Excuse me, what yarn store are you with?’ … And he said, ‘I’m not with a yarn store. I’m with Polo Ralph Lauren in New York.’”
(She wouldn’t know it for many months, but Lauren wanted to produce its uniforms and apparel line for the Sochi Olympics from only U.S.-sourced materials, and a small yarn store in New York had recommended Imperial’s yarn.)
“I said, ‘Ralph Lauren? You’re kidding! And he said, ‘No, I’m sitting right here on Madison Avenue in New York.’
“And I said, ‘That’s amazing, because I’m sitting right here in the Oregon high desert; can you hear the sheep?’
“And I held the phone up, and he was truly transported, if briefly, out here to our world, because the ewes were leaving the spring out back and heading up the hill, and you could hear their bells tinkling and the lambs calling their mommies and the mothers answering their babies. You could hear the symphony of the sheep.”
The Lauren people visited the ranch and were hooked. Eventually Imperial Yarn received its largest order ever, doubling its 2013 sales, and the Carvers — after signing a confidentiality agreement — learned they would be helping to clothe U.S. Olympians.
In the ensuing months, publicity from that announcement brought a steady stream of reporters and camera crews from Oregon and far beyond to the ranch. Ralph Lauren spotlighted Imperial in its promotional video for the Olympic apparel line, and NBC planned to air a piece on the Carvers’ Olympic connection during the first week of Olympic coverage.
Meanwhile, as the opening ceremonies approached, Jeanne was asked if the ranchers would all take a break to sit down and watch the opening ceremonies and savor the moment.
She looked up toward the steep, bunchgrass-covered hillside sweeping away from the complex of weathered ranch buildings, and back down toward the century-old lambing barn, where she had worked through the previous night helping deliver lambs and get them bonded with their mamas, and where worried ewes could be heard bleating in alarm.
“Of course we want to watch,” she said. “But I don’t know. We might have to tape it and watch it later. Because there will be work to do.”
Photos by Hannah O’Leary; story by Kevin Miller. A longer version of this story will appear in April’s Oregon Stater magazine