For decades, the preferred beast of burden for back country farmers was a mule. Compared to most horses, they eat less, are easier to control and have smaller feet, which is important for “close work” cultivation. Of course, some horses worked well in the field and some mules were just plain “cussed” mean or stubborn.
Movie fans familiar with “Two Mules for Sister Sara” might think that they know about mules. But the animals ridden by Sara (Shirley MacLaine), a prostitute disguised as a nun seeking to drive Emperor Maximillian from Mexico, were not mules. They were female burros (donkeys) called jennies. Males are called jackasses or jacks or asses. She teamed with Clint Eastwood, whose use of dynamite and guns produced many corpses and turned the tide for the “good guys” before they set out together to open a “place” in San Francisco. She was riding a jenny, not a mule.
What is a mule? It is a hybrid with a mare (female horse) as dam and a jackass (male donkey) as sire. There is a significant size difference, but those who breed mules for market know how to make the mating happen. As hybrids, mules are sterile. Mare mules do not go into gestation cycles and males (horse mules) are gelded early on to produce draft animals and prevent hormone-driven misbehavior.
Mules gain some useful characteristic from their jackass heritage. They are more sure-footed and have greater stamina than horses. Ungelded jackasses are stubborn and can be mean, but jennies are manageable, though small and slow. From their horse parentage, mules gain size and power. Most mare mules can be trained to perform a wide range of tasks reliably. Hoss mules tend to be less tractable.
Working a mule at harness involves several pieces of equipment. First is a bridle complete with metal bit running through the mouth for control and guidance. A padded leather collar fitting around the neck at the shoulder protects against chafing from the work load. The essential of the harness is the “hames,” two strong, curved wooden pieces that fit the curve of the collar and are tied top and bottom. Sturdy metal strips running along the outside edges hold the trace chains that connect to plows, wagons, etc., and to guide the “plow lines” from bridle to driver. A back band protects back and flanks and guides the angle of connection between harness and plow.
A singletree is the link between chains that pull things to be pulled. The name indicates that in early times it was a beam of hardwood but steel is better, so it became a two-foot metal bar with hooks at each end to which chains are attached. There are risks at the moment of hooking up mule to singletree. A few disliked being approached from the rear where they could not see and were inclined to kick. A rear foot could land with force onto any part of a plowboy’s anatomy, head to toe.
The term “hard-tailed mule” is associated with a different risk. In many animals, tails, which are backbone extensions, taper to nothing, used mainly for balance. Others have heavier tails, often fitted with long hairs useful for fending off insects. Mules have such heavy spinal extensions. They use them against gnats and flies, including horse flies, which inflict painful bites on all sorts of animals, even humans. If a mule swished its tail at the moment when a plowman was hooking chain to singletree, a painful collision between hard tail and head was entirely possible. Coarse hairs slashing across face and neck made the blow even more memorable.
I first plowed a mule at age 10, a patch of peanuts that Daddy planted for hog feed in the fall. I could barely manage the “joe-harrow” and almost covered up the young plants, but that good little mule “Tiny” knew more about how to do the job than I did and saved me from disaster. Thereafter, I drove tobacco sleds for various people every summer and took on more challenging plowing duties each year.
Unfortunately, I soon had to work without Tiny. Ours was a “two-horse farm,” meaning it required two good mules to do the necessary work. She was great to work on her own: intelligent, fast-paced and sure-footed. However, she worked so fast that she would be exhausted by noon and needed recovery time. Teamed with another mule, one that was always larger, to pull heavier plows, she surged ahead, carrying more than her share of the load and requiring the plowman to urge the other animal to move faster. Reluctantly, Daddy traded her for Dinah: larger, slower, more docile, but requiring more direction and correction. She worked me harder.
Thinking of mule work always reminds me of driving tobacco sleds. These were cloth-covered, rectangular crates about 2 feet wide by 8 feet long, mounted on runners. They were drawn down middles — spaces between tobacco rows — to collect the ripened tobacco leaves harvested by croppers. When filled, they were driven to the curing barn, where the leaves were “strung” in clusters onto sticks that were hung in the barn for curing. Highly manageable mules were preferred for sled work.
Once I was driving for a dear relative — called him Unk — when bad things happened because he had a “fractious” mule. We had to cross a wooded area between field and barn. Just as mule and I were leaving the field, she spooked at something and took off back toward the tobacco patch, leaving me flat on the ground, turning the sled on its side and scattering tobacco in her path. Unk stepped in front of her at the edge of his tobacco patch, inserted his fingers far up her nose and twisted her to her knees in a matter of seconds. He also commented to and about her as he did so in colorful and imaginative language, including things about her ancestry that had nothing to do with horse or donkey.
Afterwards, that mule of interesting ancestry calmly towed the sled, now back on its runners while the croppers gathered into it the bruised and scattered tobacco. Never again on that day or later did I have problems with her.
No one plows mules now except in re-enactment festivals. Such farming went away quickly after World War II as young farmers returned to the land with new skills and new technology, including use of tractors that could do more in a day than a mule farmer could do in a week. And that was just the beginning. No one wants to go back to plowing a hard-tailed mule.
Roger G. Branch Sr. is professor emeritus of sociology at Georgia Southern University and is a retired pastor.