By Stephen D. Bowling
They were once a common site in Breathitt County, but today few can be found on the hillsides and in the valleys. These essential parts of every farm at the turn of the century have been replaced over the years with tractors and tillers. Most farmers who could afford them had at least two in a “matched pair.”
In April 1975, Bill Peterson, a beat writer for The Louisville Courier-Journal, came to Breathitt County looking for answers. Peterson traveled to War Creek and drove up the road looking for a farmer turning his garden with mules. He found Offit Turner.
Walking slowly behind his mules, Turner was turning over his garden with an old red mule that was “Swaybacked, skinny around the ribs and neck, and a bit shaggy and worn looking.” He explained that Dorie, his mule, was once “a beauty” and a “real hard worker” before noting that time has taken its toll on both of them. Turner, age 55, worked Dorie down the long row and turned her around. “Git Up, Dorie,” he said as he guided the bull-tongued plow back up the row leaving a wide furrow behind him. He stopped in the shad eat the end of the row to talk to Peterson. Peterson described Turner as “lean, ramrod straight and dignified looking in his bib overalls.”
“It’s gittin so a man can’t hardly buy a mule anymore,” Turner told the newspaperman. “Prices have gone sky-high. Nobody is raisin’ ‘em anymore. About everyone has got a tractor now. I suppose I’ll get one too next year.”
Peterson also interviewed 70-year-old Redwine Anderson at Canoe who said he had used mules since he was a boy. “I don’t work ‘em too hard,” Anderson said. “I figure a mule’s like a person. You treat him right, he’ll treat you right.” Peterson found Anderson on the bank of the Middle Fork of the Kentucky River plowing up rich, dark soil with his mules, Pearl and Jack.
Anderson talked about the changes that he had seen and how these developments impacted his life as he stood in the shade beside his fresh-turned field. “My daddy brought me up to work,” he said. “He was a working man. He learned me how to work, and that’s what I’ve always done. Soon as a man stops workin’, he starts dryin’ up.”
“Sweat makes a man and his mules feel better,” Anderson said. “Always did me anyway.”
The role that mules played in the development of the mountain cannot truly be estimated. They were a staple of most Eastern Kentucky farms for more than 150 years. The tractor’s rumble has been nearly erased the echoing sounds of a mules’ bray or the grunts of grazing mules on the hillsides. There are a few farms in the county where mules can still be found. Most Breathitt County mules are used more for recreational riding and leisurely wagon trips today.
Many mule owners in Breathitt County see themselves as the continuation of a long tradition, and they keep the animals because they enjoy working with them. Redwine Anderson said in 1975 that the people who have them keep mules because they love them. He summed up his belief in one statement: “I’ve got mules, and I like working them.”
© 2022 Stephen D. Bowling