Old Nell, Ider and Rhoda

Our mules were not legal partners, but in a practical sense they were definitely partners.  Without any choice in the matter, they agreed to help us farm in exchange for food and lodging.  They pulled our plows, the wagon, and on-the-ground slide, at our convenience, in exchange for corn, hay, and water.  Realizing how important they were to us, we gave them the best of care.  My father was terribly disappointed if, after the long hard hours of summer work, our animals (mules) were not still well-fed looking.

The first plow animal the family had when we moved to the new farm was Ol' Nell.  I assume she was old since she was always called with that prefix.  She was a gray mare of average size and was happily domesticated.  She was an adequate helper when the farm average was around twenty-five acres.  But daddy cleared additional land, a larger plow was needed and old Nell became expendable.

Before Old Nell disappears into obscurity and is replaced by Ida and Rhoda, two remembrances came to mind.

My maternal grandparents lived about ten miles away.  In the early thirties, my mother had not seen her parents in more than six months.  They did correspond by using one-cent post cards, but this was a poor substitute for a 'Hey' and a real conversation.  We had a one-horse wagon, our only means of transportation, so Mother loaded my brother Arvel, my oldest sister, and me into the one-horse wagon.  Being congenial, Old Nell was delighted to go along.  A part of the harness was a holding-back strap, which fastened from the shaves to the horse, so the horse could hold back going down hill.  As we descended Beech Branch Hill, this strap broke, which meant the horse could not control the wagon.  However ,Old Nell was not concerned.  She just let the wagon run into her rear, thereby controlling its speed to her speed.  Since the trip was some ten miles, it required more than three hours' time.  This meant snacks and some means of entertainment had to be provided for the children.

One other brief remembrance, and we will allow Old Nell to disappear into the past.  We had a field of about one and a half acres that was three-quarter miles form our house, if you went by the road.  On a direct route through the wood, it was probably half as far.  At lunchtime, around 1934, we were at that field.  My father gave me the task of walking and leading Old Nell the long way, while he went through the woods.  I was honored to have the opportunity.

Everything went along smoothly until we were about one-eighth mile from home where a large hickory tree had branched over the road.  When we were about fifteen feet from the limb, a copperhead snake fell from the limb into the road in front of us.  Evidently, the snake had made the climb into the tree to feast on bird's eggs.  I don't know why it fell, but the limb was large.  The snake did not seem to be injured by the abrupt contact the ground.  Fortunately, Old Nell was thoroughly domesticated and waited patiently while I gathered some rocks and made sure future birds' nests would be safe from that snake.

In caring for our farm animals, my father had a rule that no one rode them.

In about 1935, our family had grown to two adults and four children.  The cleared acreage had increased to maybe thirty acres, and an additional plow animal was necessary.  I don't know why my father went to Gadsden to trade, but he did.  He swapped Old Nell to the mule barn for two thoroughly wild Missouri mules.  The only gear they had ever worn was a halter.  I'm sure he traded for the wild ones because they were cheap.  At the same time, he also purchased the necessary harness and a small two horse wagon.  The mule farm delivered the mule's wagon and harness to our house.  The news quickly spread to our neighbors.  On the following Sunday, about six men showed up to help domesticate the mules, Ider and Rhoda.

They were not large, weighing maybe 850 pounds.  They were well-matched as a team since they were about the same size.  Ider was black, and Rhoda was a reddish black.  Once this was accomplished, one person held the mule while another put on the collar, harness, and fastened the belly strap.  In hitching the team to the wagon, one person was always in front of the mules, holding on to the bridle.

When both were hitched and the driver was in the wagon, lines in hand, the brake pole would be pulled down and tied, so that the rear wheels would slide.  When everything was in readiness, the person in front would move aside, and the mules, to show their displeasure, would begin running, dragging the reluctant wagon with the rear wheels sliding.  The runaway would continue for a few minutes, or until the mules were exhausted.  The driver using the lines would attempt to guide the mules, but, in their displeasure at being restrained, they had a mind of their own.

I remember one occasion when corn was loaded on the wagon to go to the grist mill.  My brother, age eleven, was in the rear of the wagon.  Suddenly the mules started, and he was thrown over the tailgate to the ground.  He immediately jumped up and chased the wagon and climbed in again, holding the brake pole.  Actually, the running of the mule was their undoing.  When they became exhausted, they were too tired to resist and became manageable.

Through daily effort, the mules began to accept domesticity, an perhaps decided that their lot was acceptable.  Maybe they had the better half of the partnership, with corn and hay always in the trough.  After a period of training, Ider and Rhoda became dependable helpers.  But on occasion, when a new situation was encountered, the would lose control and try to run away.  One awkward problem was being near a noisy car or truck.  There were no motorized vehicles in the pastures of Missouri, and the new experience was frightening.  An even more horrifying problem was being in the area of a steam locomotive.  When one of these situations appeared, prevention became the cure.  The wagon would be stopped, and someone would hold the bridles and stand in front of the wagon.

As stated earlier, the wagon was our sole means of transportation, other than walking.  Usually the longest trip was from one to three miles, to church, mill, or the store.  In the fall, cotton was carried to the gin, five miles each way.  About this time, in the mid thirties, Daddy had to go about ten miles to Oneonta on business.  Usually he would walk, but on this occasion the wagon was needed.  As a special treat to my brother and me, he decided we could go.  It was our first time.

We left home at first daylight and arrived in town in the middle if the morning.  We drove the wagon to the wagon yard and joined numerous other wagons.  My father concluded his business, which included my brother and I seeing the sights of downtown Oneonta.  There was no money for candy or other treats, and the subject was never mentioned.  I do recall that, both going and coming, we forded th e Little Warrior River at what was called Murphree's Bridge, allowing the mules to drink.  By the time we got home, the stars were shining.  For our comfort in the wagon, we were provided with quilts and meal since there was no money to go to a restaurant.

In the late thirties, about 1937, I was lucky enough to be allowed to ride the wagon loaded with cotton to Clarence where the gin was located.  This was a special treat since the cotton was soft.  To get a bale on the wagon, it was packed high.  We arrived at the gin at about four P.M, and immediately learned that many other farmers had the same idea.  There were more than a dozen bales all loaded on the wagon ahead of us.  Although the gin could do a bale every eleven minutes, at best we had several hours to wait.  That would take us well past supper time.

Just when the hunger pangs were becoming unmanageable, my uncle, Herman Weems, also there with a bale of cotton, suggested that I go with him to supper.  I climbed onto the top of his cotton load, and he drove his team about one-half mile to the store.  There he purchased ten cents worth of cheese and a five-cent box of crackers for our supper.  Surprisingly, there was enough to give us a good meal.  As you will note, no drinks were purchased, since that would have required dime-cokes and other soft drinks were five cents each.  It actually does not matter what something sells for if you don't have any money.

At the gin, Ider and Rhoda were subjected to another frightening experience.  The cotton was removed from the wagon by a suction which, along with the other gin noises, was frightening.  To keep them under control, one person would stand at the front of the team holding the bridle.  This also gave me a chance to be 'big time.' After the cotton was transferred to the gin, you signed a form, received a pencil and small notebook, furnished by a fertilizer company.  Since Daddy did not want to leave our mules, I was sent to sign the form and accept the pencil and book.  I truly felt 'big time' signing my daddy's name and collecting the prizes.

As time passed, Ider and Rhoda became willing, dependable, and skillful helpers.  They would follow directions, knowing that 'Whoa' was 'Stop', 'Gee' was 'Go right,' 'Haw' was 'Go Left,' and a tap of the lines meant 'Start.' This allowed the plow hand to put the lines over his shoulder and concentrate on the plow.  The mules knew they were to keep out of the row of plants and do as little damage as possible with their feet.  Since each of them had four, with eight between them, this was not easy.

Each mule had its own individualistic manners.  Ider was very concerned about her ears.  When putting on her bridle, she did not was you to touch them.  If you would just out in the bit and put the bridle in place, she would put her ears in.  When I finally became large enough to graduate from hoe to plow, it was my job to harness the mules.  The first task was the bridle.  Not being aware of Ider's ear concerns, I started with a problem.  She refused to cooperate.  I took a small plank and struck her rear quite hard to get her attention.  We never had another problem.

I rarely ever struck one of our mules.  It just wasn't necessary.  Mules are surprisingly intelligent and respond to kindness.  To show their intelligence, some of our neighbors used the ringing of a bell to announce quitting time for lunch.  The mules became accustomed to the sound and were difficult to keep in the field after the bell rang.

Finally, after many years of helping us farm, Rhoda had a health problem.  I don't know the cause, but it affected her breathing.  She was not able to do her share.  Reluctantly, my father traded Rhoda for a new helper, whose name was Joe.  Joe was a different breed who listened to his own drummer.  He did not walk when he was hitched to the plow.  His actions were very annoying.  One fall, which was probably my last one on the farm, it was extremely hot.  I was given the job of fertilizing a field of tomatoes.  The fertilizer was in 100-pound bags, parked at the edge of the field.

I was using a guano distributor, which had a large hopper to hold the guano.  As the distributor was pulled, a knocker jarred the plow, causing the guano to be expelled in a steady flow.  The plow had a sharp point which made the hole, so that a stream of guano was buried underground.  Once the bags of guano were distributed and the hopper was empty, I would stop, leave the plow standing,, get a sack of guano, and refill the hopper.  For reasons known only to himself, Old Joe decided he did not want to work.  When I left the plow to get the guano, he ran away.  Fortunately, the trace chains became unhitched form the plow.  Joe ran about a quarter mile, and was spotted by a neighbor, Otis Kent.  He caught Joe and brought him back to me.

Naturally, I had gone in search of the mule myself.  Since this behavior was totally unacceptable, I did try to get Joe's attention.  It was so hot and humid that my mother sent me a towel to use in wiping the sweat.  We did manage to finish the job, but I did not trust Joe and unhitched him from the plow when I had to reload the guano.  I always had affection for Ider and Rhoda, but none for Joe.

Perhaps a remembrance of how a plowing day started would be of interest.  The first event was to put the bridle on the mule and lead him from the stall to get water.  The mule then stood in the barn hallway while the necessary gear was put in place.  Before putting on any of it, we used a brush and curry comb on the hair coat.  When this was completed, we put the collar around the mule's neck and fastened it, then attached the harness to the collar.  The harness also had a back strap and bellyband to fasten.

The trace chains, another part of the harness, were used to attach the mule to the plow.  On the end of the plow was a device to which a single tree* was fastened.  The trace chains were then attached to the single tree.

This description completely ignores the preparation of the plow.  Depending on what was to be done, the plow could be a Georgia stock, allowing a scooter and sweep to be attached for running around rows of plants.  It could be a planter, a distributor, scratcher, or turning plow.  If it was a turning plow, there would be a double tree with two single trees for two mules.  Considerable skill was required to prepare the plow.  Fortunately, I never learned the necessary skill for this job.

Probably the most enjoyable plowing job was turning the soil in the spring, preparing for planting.  This was enjoyable because it was simple and repetitious.  You just started at the edge and went around the field turning the soil to the right.  Some of the happiest days I can recall were performing this chore.

Other types of plowing were much more demanding, especially where small plants were being cultivated.  The most onerous type was using the scratcher in a new field where there were many tree roots.  The scratcher teeth would hold and pull the roots, and they would often be released hitting the person on the shins.  A newer field was also a real problem to turn since the turning plow would become stuck in the remains of tree stumps underground.  Each time, the team would have to stop, and the plower would have to pull the plow backwards, freeing it to proceed.  When this happened, it could make for a long day.

One incident I remember very well occurred while I was turning land.  The turning plow went through an underground snake's home.  The snake was not pleased and immediately sought something to register his displeasure.  As this occurred in a sandy field, it took some time to find enough rocks to use to show my displeasure.  The snake eyes were covered with a layer of growth.  It seemed that he could not see, but he had no trouble striking at me.  Evidently it used its heat sensor.

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