Mules

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When the plowing up of cotton came in the Depression, the Delta and Pine Land Company’s plantation, which had been experimenting with three thousand acres of all-tractor crop, plowed up that acreage so tenants and croppers could have the additional allotment. Minor Gray, later general manager of the big plantation, remembers: For several years thereafter the food crops for the mules were worked with the tractors we had bought for the wages crop. This was the pattern until the wartime exit of labor forced us back into the tractor-wages crop. No tenant was ever put off the property and no crop taken away from one. They continued as tenants until they left or found it uneconomic to be tenants and became day hands. We had some tenants until 1950. Around then we got rid of the last mules.

Tractors had been known in the Delta since the first generation of balky, twelve-horsepower keroseneburning Fordsons. (“You had to put a blowtorch to them in winter to get them started,” a farmer remembered.) In the late 1920’s larger plantations owned a single twenty-horsepower general-utility Farmall for breaking the land and heavy hauling. If it hadn’t been for the Depression, followed by World War n’s steel shortages, full mechanization would probably have come sooner.

What kept the mule in the Delta was the fact that the mechanical cotton picker had not yet been perfected, though the mule had little to do with the actual harvest. In order to have men, women, and children on the plantation in September to handpick the bolls, the planter had to provide enough employment yearround to keep his labor on the place.

After the war labor was slow in returning, and by then the mechanical picker had come on the market. The planter now had a man and a mechanical cotton picker to harvest his crop; crop dusters to scatter pesticides from planes; the same driver and tractor with a flame cultivator to burn the weeds; the same driver and tractor equipped with other specialized implements to cultivate the cotton, eradicate the grass, plant the seed, drill in the fertilizer, knock down the furrows, break the land. A tractor with a skilled driver could take the place of ten mules and ten men with their dependents.

Mississippi’s mule population in 1940 was 354,000. Ten years later it was 78,000 less. In the next three years it fell 57,000 more, while dog-food factories rounded up the mules of entire plantations, buying for two cents a pound animals that had been purchased for a hundred dollars apiece. The Delta and Pine Land Plantation; one of the largest, made its final decision so suddenly that in 1948 it sold a hundred two-year-old mules that had not yet even been broken.

 

Day wages replaced the sharecropper system. Feed-crop acreage became cotton land. Overproduction of cotton brought new federal controls. Landowners received government checks for not planting cotton. Workers without land to work and unskilled in all but the old mule technology sought survival on welfare rolls in Mississippi and in such distant cities as Chicago and Los Angeles. In 1968, when the organizers of the Poor People’s March on Washington sought to dramatize the plight of the voteless with a caravan of mules and cotton wagons, they were hard put in the rich cotton country near Marks, Mississippi, to find wagons and mules—and a farrier to shoe the animals.

Today the oil field, not the cornfield, is the source of energy for the plantation; roads and power lines grid the land. Petrochemicals keep the one-time virgin soil productive. Herbicides replace hoe and muledrawn cultivators. Insecticides assure security for the crop. Butane, some of it sold by gypsies, gives warmth.

The economy based on man and mule is ended. Cotton itself fights for its life against the oil world’s polyesters.

The mule’s world has ended.

THE IMMORTAL MULE 1976_1_62