- Historic Sites
IN THE DELTA
December 1976 | Volume 28, Issue 1
Before that Trail Lake made lots of holes looking for artesian water. Mules fell into the holes, struggled to get out, gave up and died before we learned how to pull them out, with a chain around their neck and pulling. It takes four mules. The holes were about five feet deep. That was before electricity on the farm and we wanted to find a flow well. If you don’t get help and pull him out, he’ll give up and not eat or drink and die. If you get him pulled out in a few hours he’ll still be no good for work the next day. It strains his nerves, takes more out of him than he can get back in two or three days.
When I’d get ahead on my crop I’d work day labor for the Trail Lake Company, hauling hay for mules, a dollar a day. The only way I could save was to put it in something. 1 saved the price of a horse, f 80. That was cheaper than a mule. Horses aren’t built for heavy work. After two crops as a share cropper I’d saved enough to trade that horse and got two little mules, Belle and Tom. After that I only paid the company one fourth of the crop.
In those days we didn’t use soda [sodium nitrate] and we didn’t use poison. The season would come just right. The crop would grow as tall as you and me. When I had that one horse I had to borrow a mule because it took two to carry the haul to the gin.
Then when I bought my own 40 acres it was alfalfa that gave me a boost in cash money. I planted 10 acres once and 15 the second time, cut it five or six times a year. My mule would cut it but my neighbors raked and baled it. I paid 25« a bale. In the, spring the alfalfa wouldn’t dry out too good and it bloated the mules. I’d drench them with salts.
By the 1920’s the Delta countryside was full of people. Their cabins spread wide across the fields, unbound by roads and scattered like fertile seed on the gray loam’s friable soil. The mule’s turnrow was man’s footpath when winter rains made mire of denuded fields and a mule himself might bog to the belly and die.
The people of this mule world consisted of the Boss Man, who owned the land or managed it; sharecroppers, also called half-hands, for whom the Boss Man provided land, mules, equipment, seed, fertilizer, poison, and management skill in return for half the crop; tenants, who, for a fourth of what they produced, rented the land but were responsible themselves for all else they needed (though they were also supervised by the Boss Man because they owed for land rental and advances); and day hands, paid by the day, who made the corn crop, baled the hay, and worked on special jobs and who might be drawn from the tenant or cropper category. As for the mule, he knew best the man who worked him and the hostler on whom he depended for most of the good things of life. The farrier shod him if he was to travel graveled highways, and the veterinarian checked his health and filed his teeth if any grew so long as to interfere with proper mastication.
The mule’s feed was corn or oats, and hay or grass. The landowner set aside land, mules, equipment, and day-hands’ wages to provide food for the cotton-field mules. Tenants had their own feed-stuff acreage or harvested grass from ditch banks. When a bad season killed a hay crop, or the farmer, gambling on a high price for cotton, put cornland into cotton, baled hay was bought from brokers in the cities.
The mule’s gear, like that of the horse, consisted of bit and bridle, by which man imposed his control, and the gear proper, by which the mule’s power was harnessed to do man’s bidding. Added to bit, bridle, and lines—frequently of rope—were blinders, because the less a mule sees, the less he has to react to. The gear proper consisted of a collar around the front shoulders, with tall hames rising like extra ears above, a bellyband with a ring at either side, and trace chains. The chains were fastened to the hames, passed along the animal’s sides through the rings, and finally connected to either side of the whiffletree, or singletree—the flat, twentyfour-inch-wide board that spread the traces apart and kept the mule’s legs from getting entangled in the chains. The singletree was where the mule’s power was transferred to plow or wagon. If more power was needed, as many as four whiffletrees, each attached to a different mule, could be fastened to a broad board, which in turn was connected with the equipment to be pulled.
For some mules, usually the heavier ones weighing twelve hundred pounds and more, the new crop year began before the old was over. Cotton, which begins ripening in August, might still be in the fields in March. The wise and lucky landowner was the one who got the cotton picked first from the heavy lands. These, so the planters believed, needed to be broken early so winter rains could run the clods together and mellow the soil. Old stalks had first to be cut, either by mule-drawn stalk chopper or by hand. On a dry winter night when the wind was not too strong, the ends of the rows of felled dried stalks were set afire and the flames moved briskly across the field to the turnrow.