Robert H. "Bob" Gillis got started raising Cotswolds in 1965, as part of a wave of ten new Cotswold flocks that started and/or re-started that year.
At that time, Bob had already been a grower of purebred sheep for 28 years. He began at the age of ten, and from that time forward he never was without a sheep flock. Well, except for a few years when he got drafted into the army in his late teens. During that time, his father kept his original childhood flock for him.
In 1954 Bob and his wife Josephine ("Jo") were able to buy a small farm not far from Bloomington, Illinois, which is when he decided to get back into showing. He had done some showing in the 4-H Club, in the Youth Competitions.
At that point he began to invest into better stock and carefully studied sheep breeding and took note of the outcomes of experimental pairings, attaining very respectable results in the show ring.
He was hired by the Ralston-Purina Company, a career he stuck with for 37 years.
There were many setbacks during those early years of learning the business, all of which he laughed about 50 years later.
"Each new difficulty that arose," he said, "whether it was some disease that was unfamiliar to me, or unexpected disaster, or just tough personal situations, taught me hard but unforgettable lessons about sheep raising and showing."
Getting Into Cotswolds
"I really got started in Cotswold sheep in the mid-1960s," he explained, "when Porter Ashford and Allie Bryant [ACRA members located in Decatur and Murrayville, Illinois, respectively] had gone "halves" buying the McDowell flock [David McDowell, of Mercer, Pennsylvania]."
"Mr. Ashford was taken ill and couldn't take delivery of the McDowell sheep right away, so I agreed to look after his sheep at my farm until he could come get them."
Months passed, and Porter Ashford's ewes were obviously pregnant, and Bob was wondering why Ashford hadn't called, so he called to the Ashford home and learned that Porter had been hospitalized for months and wasn't expected to live long.
"By then I had spent a lot of money on their feed and hay--it was wintertime after all--and I was afraid if Mr. Ashford died then the sheep would be taken away by his heirs.
"So I drove down to Decatur to the hospital and visited him and we made a deal, all signed and legal: As payment for looking after and feeding them, I would get half of whatever lambs the ewes produced. I told him I wasn't going to cherry-pick the best lambs; we would just open the gate and whichever lambs left the pen first would be mine, and the rest would be his.
"Well, Mr. Ashford's health got better, and soon he came to get the sheep. From the gate-cut bunch, I ended up with five good ewe lambs and bought one of the McDowell yearling rams to head the flock."
That "close-bred" flock was Bob's beginning in Cotswolds.
Back in the 1960s longwool breeders were expected to rub oil into the fleeces at show time to help emphasize the luster. In addition, there was often a yellow tint added.
"It was just a mess," said Bob. "You were expected to have the sheep oiled up for showing the day before the show, so the oil could spread itself all over the wool more uniformly. The sheep had to be kept very clean, other than the oil."
As it happened, soon after that, the longwool growers did away with the oiling and showing became fun.
Longwool breeds (Cotswold, Border Leicester and Lincoln) were lumped together into a single Longwool Class in the shows, rather than as individual breed classes.
Bob won many prize ribbons and banners, but was a tireless advocate for the breed among his show acquaintances. It was he to whom goes the credit for winning the hearts of many of today's Cotswold show breeders, his passion for excellence in Cotswolds was so contagious.
Gillis Cotswold blood is in a majority of America's flocks, and practically always improved any flocks which had introduced his rams.
Bob was a showman and breeding stock producer of first-rate integrity.
He was saddened and quite upset by showmen who bent and broke rules in order to gain a much-desired first place win at the shows.
He even blushed as he recounted---years after the fact---having placed an ad in The Banner (a sheep show breeder's magazine) at the end of the showing season thanking and naming all the show breeders in the U.S. and Canada who had bought rams from him. He realized only after seeing his ad in print that one of the named buyers was a Lincoln breeder, not a Cotswold flock! He called and began apologizing profusely for possibly causing him some embarrassment.
"But he just laughed it off," Bob said, "apparently not worried at all that it might affect his reputation." It was very surprising to him, at the time assuming that this breeder must have been an experimenter, just like himself, and would never enter such a cross in the shows.
In the early 1990s, Bob bought a black ram of the Lincoln breed.
It started with his personal suspicion of foul play when craft workers suddenly began demanding naturally-colored high-luster longwool, and therefore almost overnight, black longwool breeds of sheep were commanding astonishing prices as breeding stock.
In over 25 years of Cotswold farming, he had never had a black lamb born on his place and he wanted to test whether Cotswolds were even capable of producing black lambs. What bothered him was the appearance of numerous black "Cotswolds" being offer for sale, as if by magic. Not being able to find any black rams for sale from his long-trusted friends in the American Cotswold Record Association, he obtained a black Lincoln. He reasoned that neither a black ram of Cotswold lineage, nor a Lincoln, was registerable, so it didn't matter what breed the black ram was.
"Out of 17 ewes, not one produced even a spot of color," he said. "So I sold the lambs as market (meat) lambs at a sale barn, and sent the ram back. It was a good ram, so the Lincoln breeder re-sold it to someone else."
Bob was not afraid of judicious flock inbreeding, more often than not using sires he raised himself on at least a few of his ewes in order to "fix" good traits and to "prove them" by bringing to the fore any hidden undesirable genes before moving ahead with his breeding plans.
Gillis stock was well known for good size, small heads, straight backs, deep bodies, uniform fleece, excellent udders and sound feet.
"Some breeders as early as the 1970s were crossing Lincolns with Cotswolds in order to get 'hybrid vigor,' which spurs growth beyond that of either parent breed," recounted Bob. "There were two flocks that I avoided when buying breeding stock; one in Ohio and one here in Illinois.
"You see, if they're crossed in order to attain hybrid vigor, you can't depend on the next generation to be so growthy," Bob explained. "I wanted my Cotswolds to grow as well for my customers as they had for me."
Bob added, "I remember an early 1970s show here in Illinois. I told [one of those two crossbreeding growers] that his sheep looked so much like Lincolns that he shouldn't be calling them Cotswolds anymore. 'After all,' I told him, 'the showing class was Longwools, so it almost doesn't matter what name you call them.' I just wanted him to stop making people expect Cotswolds to look like that."
"Some years later, I was seated up on the bleachers at a show, right next to that same breeder's new wife. She said something that confirmed my doubts," Bob said. "She was very new to the sheep business and didn't know much about pure breeding. When I mentioned to her that those sheep were exceptionally big, she proudly replied, 'They ought to be, he bought the best Lincoln ram in the state!"
Given time and a little prodding, Bob could talk anyone's ear off with compelling, interesting advantages of Cotswold sheep. He was among the first to call to public attention the sweet, mild flavor of the Cotswold meat, the sheep's persistent mothering instincts and excellent milking ability, and also its undemanding dietary needs.
Bob was honored by ACRA in 1990 with a special Shepherd's Crook award in appreciation for all his help in promoting the Cotswold breed.
At the time, in his characteristic modesty, Bob wrote, "I would like to thank the Cotswold Association and all who had a part in honoring me in Louisville. I feel quite humble and still haven't figured out why you did this, but really appreciated it. I have never been associated with any organization that has so many friendly, honest, and dedicated people."
By the time Bob recounted the foregoing narratives to us, he had already long since retired from keeping sheep, due to a long-term illness that interfered with his chore-time capacity.
On March 22, 2011, Robert H. "Bob" Gillis passed away.
He retained his legendary sense of humor even toward the end of his life, with quips such as, "When I order a three-minute egg at the diner, they want the money up front."
He had no fear of death, due to his strong faith in God, evidenced by many years of ministry service as an elder at the West Twin Grove Christian Church in Bloomington, IL.
A Few of Many Accolades...
In 2001, he was designated "Mr. Cotswold" by the Illinois State Fair, having shown sheep at this fair for 50 years.
In 2002, at the Louisville, Kentucky International Livestock Exposition, ACRA awarded Bob a gold watch commemorating his "retirement" from sheep raising, engraved with "Bob Gillis---Lifetime Membership in the American Cotswold Record Association" and special ACRA jackets for him and his wife, Jo. Bob said at the time, "...(We) thank all who had any part in honoring us.... All I ever did was raise, show and sell them; I did try not to sell anything I wouldn't use in our own flock. We tried to price them so the average family could afford them for 4-H projects or someone starting a Cotswold flock. ...I have always said, '...If I can't do it right I won't do it at all.' I felt it was time."
In 2008, Bob was again recognized for his long-term show work and his photo was placed in the Hall of Fame at the Illinois State Fair Office.
Bob was bigger than life to all who knew him, even among growers of other pure breeds. Though one or two breeders had ACRA Cotswold sheep longer than Bob did, no one else's sheep work cast a longer shadow.
Bob was widely regarded as the "Grand Old Man" of the Cotswold breed.
Bob was a model for young and old alike, regarding both personal integrity and
Last Updated: 05/09/2011