By Dr. Curtis Varnell
As a child, I watched all of the old westerns and longed for the cowboy accouterment including a beautiful horse like Trigger, Champion, or Silver. Those who watched the old cowboy shows know instantly which animal belonged to whom and exactly what each of those magnificent animals that ruled the West looked like. Later, to my surprise, I found a much more mundane and certainly not as beautiful animal, actually done most of the real work on the frontier and truly settled the west. The common mule; that awkward-looking, big floppy-eared, dew-lipped beast was the animal of choice to get work accomplished. The mule is a cross between a male donkey called a Jack and a horse. The offspring is a larger, bigger muscled version of the horse but with the superior intelligence of the donkey.
When real work was required going up steep hills, crossing dry, barren land, or pulling heavier loads, the Butterfield stage would replace the common horse with the stronger, more sure-footed mule. Need supplies or loads carried to the gold mines or on cattle drives, the animal of choice was the mule.
People in the south already knew about the mule. My grandparents used mules to plow the land, pull the wagons to market, and even as power for the sorghum and grist mills. Tony Nichols, a good friend of mine’s family had an old mule named Dina. Dina was one of those mules that had been on the farm for years and knew his way around. Tony’s dad would take him and old Dina out to the field, hook Dina to the plow, throw the leather leads over Tony’s shoulder, and off they would go. It wasn’t that he knew eight-year-old Tony could do the work, he just had faith in old Dina. She knew to stay in a straight line, knew where the rows ended and began, and when it was time to end the day and go back to the barn, she headed home. Young Tony was just along for the ride.
My grandfather had an ad in the 1929 Paris paper. He would break and train any mule at a price. He and the Parson boys had used mules for years in the logging industry. They cut huge hardwood off the side of Rich and Huckleberry mountain and then snaked the logs down the hill and through the forest to the mills using mules. People called the animals hard-headed, stubborn, and ornery but my grandfather knew they just were possessed with common sense and a deep desire for self-preservation. A tornado came up while my grandfather and Robert Parsons were working on the side of Rich Mountain. Both men were deathly fearful of the storm and headed down the mountain in a panic, looking for the nearest storm cellar. After the storm passed, the two remembered they had left the mule team and harness on the side of the mountain. Returning to the site, they found the mules had moved up the hill, found a shelter under the rock bluff, and were calmly waiting to go back to work.
While horseback riding, I started up the steep bluff leading to the top of Huckleberry Mountain. My horse’s head went down, he began to gasp for breath, and sweat poured from his body. Our entire group ended up getting off and leading the horses up the slope, that is except for Jeff Turner and Tim Miller. Their mules looked at the horses with contempt and just kept trotting up the path.
Many families in this part of Arkansas had a favorite mule and most have names of affection. Old Dan, Bill, or Baldy are often seen in photos of the time. Men brought prize teams to town to the fair to see who could pull the most weight, do the most work, or even race the fastest.
I guess there’s a good lesson in that somewhere. It’s not always the fastest, the flashiest, or the best-looking creature that wins the race. It’s the one that keeps after it, plods along through what life throws at them, and stays the course that gets the job done.
Golly Bill, I guess I need to rethink my childhood desires. Now, what was the name of Festus Hagen’s mule??