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A Good Mule is Hard to Find

April 8, 2008

Dick spent most of his life working on the chain gang. In 1930 during The Great Depression, my grandfather Pappy bought him at auction for fifteen dollars. Dick was a mule that had been used and abused until he was little more than skin and bones. He had been in harness so many times that the trace chains had rubbed open sores on his sides.

Pappy got a jar of Bluestone Salve to put on the mule’s sores. He fed him oats, corn, and hay to put a little meat on his bones. When Dick was restored to health, he was an excellent plow mule.

Though good at plowing, Dick never liked to be ridden. If a person tried to mount him like a horse, the mule would kick and bite.

My dad and his brothers would lead Dick underneath a Chinaberry tree. They’d drop a pillow on his back to get him used to carrying a little weight. Then, from a limb above, they would ease onto the mule so they could ride him. If they rode him down to the highway, Dick would balk, refusing to go out into the road. All those years on the chain gang made him leery.

A mule is a cross between a donkey and a horse. A mule may be a male or a female. Both are sterile. They cannot reproduce. A mule’s ears are long and turn toward to the slightest sound. Mules have a unique voice that is a combination of a horse’s whinny and a donkey’s bray.

During the Great Depression, many a dirt farmer depended on a mule. In fact, having a mule was better than having a horse. Paul and Betsy Hutchins, founders of the American Donkey and Mule Society and coauthors of The Modern Mule, explain.

  • Mules endure heat better than horses. They drink only enough water to replace lost body fluids.
  • Mules consume less food than horses. They rarely overeat.
  • Mules are surefooted. Their hooves are strong and flexible, while horses are prone to hoof problems.
  • Mules are physically strong and live longer productive years than horses.
  • Mules require less veterinary care than horses.
  • Mules are not inclined to panic.
  • Mules have a strong sense of self preservation. If they are overheated, overworked, or overused, mules will either slow down or stop. They are not stubborn, but they will not put themselves in danger.
  • Mules are intelligent animals. They respond well to a firm, gentle hand.

Pappy used to tell the story about a farmer who was left in dire straits after his mule died. He was having trouble making ends meet.  He tried to cut corners every way that he could.  He owned no farm equipment other than a mule and a plow.  The mule, Humphrey, was a fine, strong animal, essential to the making and harvesting of crops.

One of the farmer’s cost-saving measures was to mix a little sawdust into the oats that he fed Humphrey.  At first it seemed to be a workable plan.  When he told his neighbors about it, they thought it an odd way to take care of a good mule, but Humphrey seemed to hold up.

The months passed and times got worse. The farmer mixed more sawdust with the oats he fed Humphrey.  The mule grew weaker but still worked as hard as he could.

One day a neighbor asked, “How are things going?”

“Not good.  Not good at all.  Just about the time I got Humphrey on all sawdust and no oats, that mule up and died.”

Humphrey died just before spring planting. The farmer had to buy another mule. He scraped together $30.  He couldn’t buy a mule as good as Humphrey, but he was satisfied with the animal.  He made arrangements to return the next day with a borrowed truck to pick up the mule. The dealer agreed to keep the animal overnight.

When the farmer returned, he was greeted with more bad news.

The mule dealer said, “I’m real sorry to have to tell you this. I know you were countin’ on that mule for your spring planting, but he died last night.”

The dealer didn’t offer to refund his money because a deal was a deal. The farmer loaded the dead mule on the truck and left.

A couple of months later, the mule dealer happened to drive by the farmer’s place. He was astonished to see him working his garden on a Ford tractor. He called the farmer over to ask how in the world he had managed to buy a tractor when, not too long ago, all he had was $30 to spend on the dead mule.

“Well,” the farmer explained, “after leaving with the dead mule, I stopped off at the local print shop. I had some $2 raffle tickets printed up to say, ‘Grand prize: Used Gardening Equipment.’ I sold the raffle tickets to people around town.”

“Okay, but where did you get the gardening equipment?”

“From you.”

“But all you got from me was a dead mule.”

“I know. That’s what I raffled off.”

“You raffled off a dead mule? I’ll bet it really ticked ’em off when they realized the mule was dead.”

“Nope. Not really. The only one that got mad was the winner, and I gave him his $2 back.”

-Kirk H. Neely

© H-J Weekly, April 2008

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