These mule aficionados were brought together by Lonny Thiele, author of the book "That son of a gun had sense", a collection of mule stories from the Bootheel area during the 1930s and 1940s.
In Thiele's introduction, he proclaimed that mules, a hybrid of a female horse and a male donkey, are smaller, eat less, withstand heat to a greater degree, and work harder than a horse. In the prominent cotton crop areas of Missouri's Bootheel, these mules worked the fields 10 hours a day, six days a week.
Thiele explains that mules have a keen sense of survival and a mule will not travel into areas or situations it considers dangerous. He maintains that mules will not overeat or founder itself as horses have been known to do.
According to the book's author and those relaying their personal experiences, mules further benefited the farm economy by having the ability to obey simple voice commands.
One thing Thiele noted throughout his interviews with former mule farmers, was that mules seemed to have strong personalities and seem to be able to determine when it is break time.
The Little River Drainage District was another venture of the creature declared Missouri's official state animal.
Thiele shared that the swamp that encompassed seven southeast Missouri counties was useless for farming. In 1907, The Little River Drainage District was formed to drain it. Mule teams were used to assist in the 15 year drainage project.
Portions of the story of a local man, Leland Mallett, are shared in Thiele's book and below:
"'Elmer Mallett understood Mules'
My dad farmed al of this life with mules. He quit farming in 1965 when he turned 65, and he died in 1992 at age 92.
We moved to a 160 acre farm east of Malden from Conway, Arkansas in 1948 when I was 12.
I was small when we moved up. That Spring he told me he was going to buy me some mules so I could help him. I think he bought them at the Poplar Bluff Sale Barn. I know at the time they had a lot of mules for sale over there.
We were the only ones that had teams when we moved up here. Everyone else had tractors. The guy across the road had a team, but he had tractors too and he never used the team for anything except picking up hay. Dad never had a tractor. He always said, them mules were doing fine for him.
They were two gentle, brown and tan mare mules, Kate and Jude. They matched pretty well. They were big mules. I was raised with them.
At first I wasn't big enough to put their bridles on. They'd raise their heads up. He (Dad) helped me harness until I got big enough. He started out letting me harrow with them and different things. It wasn't long until I was using them to a breaking plow.
I remember that breaking plow would throw me down. I'd be between the handles trying to hold it and if it hit anything, it would just throw me down. I'd just holler, 'Whoa' and they'd stop and I'd straighten up.
When Dad came by with his team, he'd straighten up my mistake where it throwed me down and I didn't plow...
Kate and Jude worked together really good. It was cultivating where I had the problem with her (Jude). When she'd get close to the end of a row, she'd want to run, maybe 100 yards to the end. When she got to the end, she'd turn and go right with the other mule.
When she'd run, it pulled the one row cultivator sideways because the other mule wasn't running. It would be bumping Kate. When she'd get to running, it would cause you to plow up some of the crop. Dad didn't like that....
Jude kept doing that and getting worse. Her bridle had bills over the eyes. I cut out a piece of cotton sack and hung over that bill where she could only look down. It worked really well. Dad was amazed by that...
We could cultivate 10 acres a day. We'd walk all day. Dad never did complain. When I first started, my legs would get tired, being young. After I got to be a teenager, I'd walk behind them all day and go to town that night.
We'd take an hour off for noon, take their harness off. They'd go woller, get them a drink, and he fed them corn and hay. The heat never bothered me. Sometimes the mules would get a little hot and we'd stop at the end of a row and sit on the cultivator for awhile, 15 minutes at the most. If it was real hot, we might rest them three times. Most of the time we kept them going.
We always kept plenty of corn for them. Dad fed them in the mornings. My job was to water them, pump the water. At first, I'd have to lay on the pump handle to pull it down. Them mules can drink a lot of water...
Kate was a gentle mule. I rode her a lot. I just rode her back in the fields when we weren't working... She (Kate) wasn't hard to bridle. Sometimes I'd ride her back to our neighbor's, which was a mile back in the field. And I could just get off there and she'd stand there until I got ready to go... I'd leave the bridle on and just drop the reins down and she'd stand right there...
Dad kept Kate and Jude until one of them died in 1973. He just kept them in a 10 acre pasture with his mules. I asked him one time why he never got rid of them. He said they weren't doing nothing but eating grass and he'd just keep them."
Many other stories shared relay the deep affection the farmers had toward their mules. "That son of a gun had sense" gives an entertaining account of yesteryear in the Missouri Bootheel and the life of farm families.
The book, now in its third printing, is filled with historical photos and can be ordered by writing to Lonny Thiele at PO Box 884, Poplar Bluff, MO 63902. The book is also available for purchase at Hastings in Poplar Bluff.