If you want to gain an appreciation of the conveniences of modern transportation, try driving a team of mules for a few months. I have become a mule aficionado over the past five months after driving a wagon at a local quail hunting plantation, but I have also come to appreciate where the term stubborn as a mule came from. I am grateful that they are not my primary means of transport.
In their heyday, mules were as common as automobiles are today. As a young boy, my dad plowed his family farm behind a mule. Twenty-mule-teams hauled tons of Borax out of Death Valley, California. Mules dragged cannons across the Western Front in WW I and served as pack animals in the WW II Burma Campaign. On the home front, mules were used to pull wagons and farm implements up until the 1930’s, when they were replaced by tractors and trucks.
Mule barns, like the mule barn in downtown Albany, were combination gas-stations, garages, and hardware stores, dealing in mules, horses, and all types of transportation supplies. In 1911, according to Mary Braswell’s Looking Back column in the January 8th, 2017 Albany Herald, J. J. Battle of Battle Brothers (mules and horses) brought from Tennessee a trainload of mules including two carloads of heavy road mules turpentine mules and others adapted to all classes of heavy work. Dealing in cash, the Battle Brothers stables sold each animal for $25 – 50 less than their competitors in Southwest Georgia.
As a part-time wagon driver, I figure I spent about forty five days holding the reigns and staring at the fine, muscular behinds of two mules that I affectionately called “Left Mule” and “Right Mule”. Their radar-like ears were usually turned back toward me, listening for a “giddy up” or a “whoa mule”. They pulled me up hills and through mud holes. They went impossibly slow when heading out to work in the mornings, but returned to the barn at the end of the day at a brisk trot—if not a dead-run. They learned to whoa when I said “whoa”, but insisted on backing up when I wanted them to stand still—until I found a stick that was long enough to poke them in the behind. The left side of the wagon-tongue was always slightly ahead of the right side as Left Mule did all of the work while Right Mule nipped at her side, trying to get her to slow down. Right Mule is the one that tried to kick me when I groomed her in the morning.
Now that hunting season is over, my mules will spend the next seven months eating grass and rolling in the dust in their pasture with the other mules and horses. I wonder if they will miss me—miss the oat and apple treats I would slip them in the mornings, miss pulling the wagon across the fields as the dogs ran around and beneath them and the horses grazed in front of them, miss the people laughing and talking while shotguns boomed in the distance. Probably not. But I will miss them as I look forward to next season—although this quote from the pen of William Faulkner does give me pause: A mule will labor ten years willingly and patiently for you, for the privilege of kicking you once.