My paternal grandfather, Carl Crain, worked two dark-colored mules named Pete and Kate. They pastured together and often pulled a 2-horse wagon. They slept in adjoining stalls in a tin-roofed barn in rural Greenville, S.C., in the early 1950s.
I recall “riding” Pete when I was about three years old. “Pa” (that’s what I called my paternal grandfather) plowed with Pete one afternoon and brought him, at end of day, to drink from a tin tub sitting under a spigot placed between Pa’s house and barn. My dad set me on Pete’s back, and that was fine until Pete lowered his head to drink. Fear of sliding down his long neck hit me, but I stayed on.
“He’ll let you ride him,” Pa said, “but Kate won’t.”
I distrusted Kate and thought she was aloof and mean. She appeared a little darker in color and heavier than Pete. A few red hairs flecked Pete’s coat, and his peaceful face shaded into gray-white around his muzzle. The pair did almost everything together – grazing, drinking from the creek, and rolling on their backs in the pasture after Pa took off their harnesses. Mules and horses roll after being worked in order to ease the irritation of drying sweat. They dry the sweat with dirt, and dirt also helps protect them from biting insects.
In the 1950s, I thought poor people were “mule folk” and rich people were “horse folk.” That’s how I perceived the “class system” in the rural South during the middle of the 20th century. But mules were highly valued in olden days. King David often rode them, and the “kings of the earth” sent mules as gifts to King Solomon.
A mule, the offspring (usually sterile) of a male donkey and a female horse, is said to possess the strength of a horse and the endurance and surefootedness of the donkey.
The late Ben Crain, great-grandfather to L.S. Crain, is pictured with two mules and a grandchild.
According to mulemuseum.org (MMO), the U.S. boasted an estimated 855,000 mules in 1808. By 1897, 2.2 million mules populated the U.S. before cotton boomed in Texas and numbers rose to 4.1 million. The U.S. Army last used mules in any great number in World War 1, according to MMO. In that war, 6-mule teams hauled 2,000-lb. wagons loaded with 3,000 lbs. of cargo. War wagons were useless in mountainous country, so an Army train of 50 or more mules, each carrying 250 pounds, would move in single file and cover 60 miles a day.
Ma (my paternal grandmother) and Pa married and sharecropped before purchasing a small farm. Pa worked as a carpenter and farmed “on the side.” Ma, a housewife, never worked at a “public job.” They usually kept two mules, two cows, one or two hogs, two beagles, a cat or two, and some chickens. Except for the hogs and chickens, their animals had names and my grandparents formed bonds with them. Philosopher René Descarte reportedly regarded animals as “mindless machines” programmed with instincts. But, animals have feelings, and Pa and Ma believed righteous people took care of their animals (Proverbs 12:10).
My family (my parents, my younger sister, and I) lived near Ma and Pa, and I slept “many a night” at my grandparents’ house. Pa wore brogan shoes and overalls, except on Sundays or on Saturday mornings when he, driving his car, chauffeured Ma to Greenville to sell a little milk and butter.
When Pa drove his farm wagon, Pete and Kate pulled while I operated the brake if we descended a hill. The brake was a wooden pole I pushed against one of the rear, metal-rimmed wheels.
Pictured is the late Homer Crain, son of Claude Crain (brother to Carl Crain), and a dappled mule. Homer served in the U.S. Army in World War II and was hit by a sniper’s bullet. He later became a pastor who walked with a limp.
I served as Pa’s water-boy during spring planting when I was five. “Take this water to Pa,” Ma would say as she dropped ice cubes into a quart-size Mason jar holding water. She’d insert wax paper between the jar and the lid to make sure I didn’t slosh out water as I trekked across the field. I’d walk under two tall pecan trees standing near Ma’s kitchen and head out – bare feet on plowed warm soil, water jar hugged to my torso. I’d see Pa and Pete (or Kate) plowing and planting – one man and one mule, working, so that the man could “earn his bread by the sweat of his brow.”
Pa would stop the mule, doff his straw hat, wipe his forehead on one arm of his long-sleeved work shirt, and drink. (The mule drank plenty of water at morning, noon, and night.)
One spring day each year during my elementary school years, I skipped classes to help Pa fertilize a field for corn planting. Pete and Kate pulled the wagon as Pa and I set down 100-lb. sacks of guano (powdered bird droppings used as fertilizer) at intervals across the field. Pa then hitched Pete to a “distributor plow.” Using a bucket, I deposited fertilizer into the distributor’s box as Pa plowed, dispensing guano into furrows. As one guano sack emptied, I moved to another bag, as Pa continued plowing row by row. Pa talked to Pete, guiding him and saying “gee” and “haw,” as they traversed the field. According to “Wikipedia,” “Gee and haw are voice commands used to tell a draft animal or sled dog to turn right or left … ‘Gee’ (pronounced ‘jee’) has its first attested use in the 1620s in Scotland; the first known use of ‘haw’ was in 1777.”
The late Pinkney “Pink” Parker is pictured with a mule and a child, standing near his barn in Taylors, S.C.
I was in third grade when Pa let Pete and Kate out of their stalls and into pasture on an overcast winter morning. He put up three bars to the barn’s pasture-side hallway. (The front side of the barn had no gate or bars.) Perhaps Pa reasoned that his mules stayed outside and weathered rains during most months and would be all right, or maybe he thought the rain would “hold off” until evening. He then drove to his carpenter job. A cold rain began around mid-morning.
Seeking shelter but blocked by the bars, Pete pushed through the barbed wire fence and kudzu located to the left of the barn. Beneath the kudzu lay a deep gully, and Pete mired up to his chest in that red-dirt ditch. I think he stood there for hours, sinking further into the muck as he struggled. Kate stayed in the pasture, perhaps sensing danger.
That afternoon, Pa found Pete. My father and I soon arrived – neither family had a telephone – to visit my grandparents. The rain had mostly stopped, but the sky was still gray when I saw Pete. He stood, eyes pleading. About every 30 seconds, he flopped the right side of his neck against the bank sloping into the gully. He had worn off the kudzu on that side of the ditch.
Troy Burrell, a neighbor, stood near Pa. Before Dad and I arrived, they had placed a rope around Pete’s neck and tried to coax him to free himself, but the mud’s suction prevailed. Troy walked home and returned on a small tractor. They attached the rope to the tractor and dragged Pete, by his neck, from the mire. He lay a few feet from the gully on a flat, plowed field. He rested on his right side, with stiff legs stuck straight out before him. He appeared to me to resemble one of the plastic toy horses with unbendable legs that I often bought as a child at a dime store in town.
They said the circulation was gone in Pete’s cold legs. Hoping he would rise, they let him lie there for a while. But he didn’t get up, and they decided to put him out of his misery. I guess I was in Ma and Pa’s house or gone home with Dad when they dispatched Pete. I don’t remember hearing the shot. Pa told me that a man from Greenville came the next day and hauled away Pete’s body. I recall thinking it didn’t seem fair that Pete died in such a tragic way. He seemed the nicer mule of the pair.
Perhaps Pete’s partner wasn’t as devoid of kindness as I had thought. A few months after Pete’s passing, Pa found Kate, dead. I asked him what happened to her.
“I think she grieved herself to death,” Pa said.