Paying Homage to a Workhorse That’s Half One

Posted on April 16, 2007

In early April, the mules rule this city 40 miles south of Nashville. Long ears twitch in trailers that bump through the streets, braying rings out in Maury County Park, and residents greet strangers with “Have a good Mule Day.” Mule Day marks the arrival of spring and brings together family and friends for reminiscence and cookouts, mule sales and shows, even a liar’s contest. For many, the highlight is a parade of mule-drawn wagons, pixieish beauty queens and waving politicians. But for longtime residents, the event is also a window into the area’s rural heritage, and an homage to the humble beasts that turned the soil, gave a leg up to farmers and cemented the county’s reputation in the South for well-bred mules. “This is the last stand of old-time country folks,” said Bob Duncan, the director of the Maury County Archives. “This is not about the elite, this is not about governors and senators, even though they all get in the parades — and they’re certainly welcome.” “This is about just the regular old folks who plowed the fields and worked the farms,” he said. Mule Day itself is parade day, but the occasion stretches over nearly a week, starting with a mule sale last Tuesday. On Thursday and Friday, there were pool and checkers tournaments, clogging and arena shows. After Saturday’s parade, the festivities were to wind down Sunday with a church service and a western mule show. The parade typically does not make much news, but it did last year after it was discovered on a Department of Homeland Security list of thousands of potential terror targets. “We just hooted,” Mr. Duncan said. “This would be the last place a terrorist would want to come.” Mule Day’s roots reach to the 1800s, when county residents poured into Columbia for the spring session of the county government. Market days, known as First Mondays, sprang up for farmers to buy and sell for the coming planting season, Mr. Duncan said. Mules were a crucial investment for farmers. A good team could be the only guarantee against a hard-scrabble life of sharecropping, and a poor choice could mean debt and poverty, Mr. Duncan said. Columbia evolved into a top mule market, attracting buyers from throughout the South and overseas. Tractors ended the mules’ reign, but during the Great Depression, Columbia started Mule Day to restore cheer to the struggling county, Mr. Duncan said. In 1938, the parade gained its first Mule Day Queen to go with the its hoofed king. The first queen was Norma Parks, who was 12 when her father, a Mule Day organizer, bestowed the crown on her. Now Norma Parks Thomas, she says she brings her great-grandchildren to the event. “It’s one of the things that’s looked forward to from year to year,” said Ms. Thomas, now 81. “It’s really the biggest thing that Columbia has.” Mule Day paused for World War II, petered out afterward, then returned with vigor in the 1970s. Mule partisans who flock to Columbia today are rhapsodic about their animals. The sterile progeny of donkeys and horses, mules are said to be smarter, longer-lived, hardier and more sure-footed than either species. Ray McLean, who breeds mules in Madison, Ga., ascribes almost mystical qualities to mules and their ability to anticipate hazard, as he gently shooed off his 5-year-old mule, named Let’s Rock and Roll. “People get kind of obsessed with them,” Mr. McLean said. Mr. McLean said he sold more mules today than when he started decades ago, and that their popularity was growing. Tennessee Department of Agriculture data suggests he may be right. A department survey from 1999 counted 4,600 mules in the state. In 2004, the last year for which data is available, the number had risen to 10,300. On Saturday, wet wind brought rain squalls snapping the red and yellow flags lining the parade route. At 6 a.m., members of the Lion’s Club began fortifying paradegoers with a pancake breakfast at the Memorial Building. A line wound from the door to the kitchen, where men in aprons poured batter onto the griddle. The smell of sizzling sausage filled the hall, and syrup jugs sat in the middle of each table. After Chris and Carey Hight ate, they chatted with out-of-town guests, as Carey Hight cradled their infant daughter. Ms. Hight wore a wooden mule pin on her denim jacket, a memento from a Mule Day past. The couple, from Columbia, went to Mule Day as children; in college, they returned for homecomings with friends and kin. Mr. Hight, 39, said out-of-towners sometimes mocked Mule Day, but he brushes it off. “It’s unique,” he said, “and if that makes my hometown unique, I like it.” The parade spectators ordinarily would have been elbow-to-elbow, but Saturday’s rain thinned the crowds. Families huddled under awnings and tarps. Others peeked out from covered truck tailgates and through windshields. A phalanx of police motorcycles, sirens wailing, began the parade, followed by flagbearers on muleback. The 2007 Mule Day Queen and her gowned entourage followed on a float, umbrellas aloft. Politicians came next, including Senator Lamar Alexander, wearing his rustic trademark, a red-and-black checkered shirt, and Little Miss Chili Pepper and Little Miss Columbia waved from convertibles. Children screamed with delight when an obstinate mule brayed noisily in the middle of the street. Miniature mules tugged carts and buggies, amateur wrestlers mugged from a flatbed, and the clatter of shod hoofs and jingling harnesses filled the air. As the parade ended, the clouds parted unexpectedly to let through welcome rays of sunshine. Jennifer Hunt, 31, watched from under a building overhang, a wool blanket on her lap, then ran out to snap pictures of her sons, Bradley, 11, and Dylan, 6, as they passed in a cart drawn by a miniature mule. Later, she and the boys, along with her husband, Brad Hunt, walked among the stalls in a livestock barn at Maury County Park. Mr. Hunt, 30, said his father, grandfather and great-grandfather had all bred mules, and he wanted his kids to appreciate their heritage. “It’s something that they may hear about,” Mr. Hunt said, “but they don’t get to see it, smell it and touch it until you come to Mule Day.”