24 February 2022

Farewell to Crookwell's John 'Sam' Williams, a true merino legend

| Genevieve Jacobs
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Old photo of men with Merino sheep

Koonwarra’s Stonehaven Cup winning team in 1974. Photo: Koonwarra Merino Stud.

Quietly-spoken Southern Tablelands wool legend John Williams, whose Koonwarra Merino Stud at Crookwell was a major influence in Australian merino breeding, has died at the age of 87.

Known to all as Sam, he was the only stud master to win the prestigious Royal Easter Show Stonehaven Cup with two different studs, Koonwarra and Thalabah Merino Stud, amassing 13 trophies for his teams of immaculately-presented rams and ewes.

John Williams spent his life on Thalaba farm at Laggan, where his father had first established the Koonwarra stud in 1947. Sam began working with his father at the age of 14 and apart from a stint of National Service at 18, lived and worked nowhere else.

After his father’s early death, Sam took on the significant responsibility of running the stud at an early age. It was a challenging task and proving that he had what it took as a sheep breeder was a major task for a very young man.

But Sam was determined to prove the doubters wrong and established himself as a force to be reckoned with as he fine-tuned the Koonwarra sheep lines.

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The stud began with the family’s own breeding lines dating back to 1908, supplemented over the decades with Wanganella, Springfield and Haddon Rig genetics.

In more recent times, Sam introduced Merryville and Uardry stock, blended in 1979 with ewes from the Manderlay Stud dispersal. The blend of Merryville and Peppin genetics created a stable line of heavy-cutting, large-framed sheep with medium wool, setting a type that endured and went on to influence many modern studs.

Koonwarra sheep won important championships and awards at all major shows in the eastern states, selling rams and semen to merino studs across Australia, as well as New Zealand and Argentina.

Sam was a pioneer in artificial insemination and, to the amusement and then envy of fellow stud breeders, transported his show sheep in a converted bus. He was a skilled blade shearer and shore the top stud rams and ewes himself.

Those practical skills were put to alternative uses after Sam lost a finger early in life, but persisted in playing several musical instruments including the saxophone and guitar.

To cope with the loss, he cut up an aluminium kettle and fashioned an artificial digit. He was a member of several Crookwell district bands and put his skills to good use playing around the district.

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Sam was also a keen sportsman, playing A grade tennis for many years. He was a team player in every sense, competing with friends and workmen on the Thalaba court.

The Koonwarra stud was sold in 1998 to Charles Curran of Canowindra and is now owned by C.T. Merriman and Son, under the management of Jono and Anna Merriman. Sam retained 95 stud ewes to form the Thalabah stud, which went on to win two Stonehaven Cups in its own right after an 18-year hiatus.

In 2016 the inaugural Crookwell AP&H Society annual perpetual trophy was awarded to Sam for outstanding contribution to the rural industry and he was inducted into the NSW Stud Merino Breeders Hall of Fame in 2021.

A large crowd gathered for his funeral on February 21 at St Bartholomews Anglican Church, Crookwell, where Merino breeders from across the eastern states gathered to form a guard of honour. The memorial address was given by longtime friend and show ring competitor Wal Merriman of Merryville, who described Sam as “a friend and foe” whose sheep were “unbeatable”.

Sam is survived by his wife Marion and children, Bronwyn Reardon, Meg Williams, Jim Williams and Krisi Frost and their families.

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