Rural Missouri - April 2012 - (Page 10)

Book recalls mules on the farm Mule Memories “I try to imagine what it would have been like in the early ’30s just driving around in these counties,” Lonny says. “You would have seen 50 to 100 mules just driving for an hour or two. They would have been plowing or cultivating.” Told in narrative form in the words of those who lived them, these stories will delight anyone who loves Missouri’s long-eared state animal. Below are three stories from the book. They could pull the devil off of a cross Spider and Ella, as told by Buck Farmer When I was five years old, we lived on the biggest sand hill in Mississippi County, about three miles northwest of Charleston. One day, the sand was blowing to beat the devil, and my mother sent me to take some water down to people who were plowing watermelons. My dad was there, and we had an old plow you worked with your feet. It was hot and Dad had an extra team so he could let one of them blow, rest under a tree. They were a yellow team named Spider and Ella. So I got up on the cultivator and was pretending I was plowing watermelons. And I saw him motion to me. He had been plowing the row, and the cultivator he had I by Jim McCarty jmccarty@ruralmissouri.coop t’s not so much the mules that drove Lonny Thiele to write a book. It was the mule stories that led the Poplar Bluff man on a quest to record recollections of the days when mules were the tractors for farmers in southeast Missouri. A former newspaper reporter, Lonny won an award for a series on mule farming. The attention that effort garnered convinced him people were interested enough in mules to warrant a book on the subject. “I thought maybe I would get 20 or 30 stories and have a little book,” the Ozark Border Electric Co-op member says. “But the more I got into it, the more I kept running across stories.” In 2007, he began the first of 84 interviews with elderly people that resulted in nearly 100 mule stories. Three years later, he published his book, “That Son of a Gun Had Sense: Mule stories from the Bootheel area during the 1930s-1940s era.” The 302-page softbound book is now in its second printing. It carries new stories that came to Lonny from people who read the first edition. Those who shared their stories ranged in age from 60 to nearly 100. Many died not long after being interviewed, confirming Lonny’s fear that these stories were about to be lost forever. “One old guy, I walked in his room, and it’s like he waited 30 years for someone to come talk about mules,” Lonny says. “He died two weeks after I talked to him. It was like he wanted to get that story out before he died.” The stories tell of men and women who relied on mules to eke out a living from the land. The mules they owned kicked them, bit them, laid down on the job and let themselves out of their pens. But still the farmers loved and never forgot them. “Mainly it’s the women who talk about them like they were pets,” Lonny says. “But some of the men, too, you can tell they really loved their mules.” In the book, readers will learn of mules so smart they could work without reins. Some have personalities that make them seem almost human, while others show an uncanny ability to communicate with each other. resting had been plowing out the middle, and I said, “Dad, let me go plow.” I got on it and did that, and from then on Dad always had me working the cultivator. Dad had Spider and Ella from as early as I can remember. They were broke processing cypress timber by a He would get down on his knees black man, Sam Phillips, who wore for you to ride him to the barn a patch over his eye. He could take a Rock, as told by Johnny Williams whip and knock a fly off a mule’s hip. He wore his whip around his shoulder Dad had a team of mules; one in all the time and used it only when he particular was unusual. He was called needed to. In logging cypress stumps, ole Rock. He was grayish with little you’ve got to have a mule that will black spots in the gray. The other slow down when you mule was named Kit. She would say, “steady, was brown. They were steady.” average in size. We used I started going with them to farm about 40 See more historical mule the threshing machine acres, mostly cotton photos in the online edition and corn. We farmed in crew when I was 13, at www.ruralmissouri.coop. the Bacon Pasture area, and I took Spider and Ella because they were about four miles south gentle and had been around me some. of Poplar Bluff. Dad bought Rock at I inherited the job of pulling the cook the Poplar Bluff Sale Barn when I was shack. They’d hang all the utilities on 15 (that was in 1953). that shack, and when you went over The nature of those two mules was a railroad track, you didn’t want to very opposite. Kit was one that would hit it at high speed. All I’d have to say do an average day’s work. Ole Rock was “steady,” and they’d just creep was very conscientious on what he over it. would do. Spider and Ella were buckskins In the mornings, after we’d feed with stripes down their back. I think them, we’d hitch them up and take that’s how he got his name. They them to the field. Rock was a very were brother and sister and were good worker unless you’d go over big mules, probably 16 hands. They quittin’ time, or noontime. He seemed probably weighed 1,250 to 1,300 like he knew when it was a quarter till pounds. They could pull the devil 12 better than we did. off of a cross. They would pull. SpiAt quarter till 12, when we would der was bigger and stronger than Ella. get to the end of a row, he would stop In those days, the roads were in and wait for you to unhook him. If bad shape and Model Ts would get you decided to do another row, he stuck, and people would walk to our would drag to the other end, go as house. We’d take Spider by himself slow as he could, but when you got to and hook him to whatever, and he’d the far end and headed back, he would just groan and pull, and pull it loose. walk as fast as he could. You almost We’d hook him to whatever we could had to run to keep up with him. get to, usually the spring. The bumper When you’d unhitch him, he’d be would be too weak. eager to get back to the barn. If you There was a “borrow pit” about a hesitated on getting to the barn, he quarter of a mile from where we lived, would get down on his front knees where they’d borrow dirt to fill up for you to ride him to the barn. At the the road. This man knocked on our barn, we fed them corn and hay. door one night and said, “Charlie, After lunch, when we would get I’m stuck up down here.” We took ole ready to go back to the field, ole Rock Spider and went down there and the wouldn’t let us ride him. He would man said, “Please don’t tell anybody.” swing his back end around to keep us ‘Cause he was with his secretary. We from getting on him. If we managed took ole Spider and went down there to get half way up on him, he would and pulled him out. My dad owed reach around and grab you by the him a little at that time and later he britches leg and jerk you right back threatened to sue Dad. He was someoff. He was determined not to let you thing else. ride him back to work. It used to be when you had a When 5 o’clock came around, he’d Model T, you’d get up in the morning start to get antsy. He’d come to the end of the row, stop and look at you and wait for you to unhook him. I Many mules shared human traits imagine if he could talk, he would that endeared them to their owners. have said, “Dummy, don’t you know Despite being stubborn and it’s time to quit?” sometimes even mean, the mule At the barn, I would feed them and men and women loved them. and they’d be cold. You’d drain them at night and in the morning, put hot water in them. But it was hard to get them started. So Dad would say, “Go get ole Spider.” And we’d take ole Spider and he would pull it until we got it started. My dad would be in the T and I’d lead the mule. He’d push in the clutch and throw it into gear. We used the Model T to go to school. We used Spider as a wheel mule to a (wheat) binder because he was big and stout and wasn’t going to spook at anything. When pulling a binder there were three mules to the wheel and two in the lead. As the off mule, Spider was strong and would carry the load. I never saw him pant in his entire life. In 1939, Dad traded Spider and Ella for a down payment on a Ford tractor. WWW.RURALMISSOURI.COOP http://WWW.RURALMISSOURI.COOP

Table of Contents for the Digital Edition of Rural Missouri - April 2012

Rural Missouri - April 2012
Table of Contents
Comments
Columns
Mule memories
Squandered opportunity
Something to gobble about
Outdoors
Best of Rural Missouri
Hearth and Home
The hardest fun ever
News Briefs
Around Missouri
Marketplace
Small-town saviors
Neighbors
Just4Kids

Rural Missouri - April 2012

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