The Mules of August

Copyright 2005 Harless Edgar Warf

 

 

June bugs were plentiful, the sky was clear and the sun was pleasantly warm on our skin. It was the first week of August 1940 and School would be in session soon. But school at this time was not on the minds of our group of ten, eleven and twelve-year old boys and two or three girls of the same age.

To capture and fly June bugs was the game of the day, at Venus of United States Steel, Coal & Coke Company, located near Gary. West Virginia. A June bug is a Beatle comparable to the size of your thumbnail, with a hard green shell and multiple strong legs that were an asset as well as a detriment to the Beatle. Because of this they were easy to catch. We would form the fingers and palm of our hand into a cup, then grab the beetle and position a leg away from his body so we boys and girls could tie a light weight sewing thread to it, and let him fly until he lost a leg or we would cut the thread short and let him fly away when we lost interest.

Two boys come running toward where we were letting our bugs fly, shouting to us in such excited voices that we couldn't understand what they were saying. At this very moment, the N&W passenger train had pulled into a natural screeching, clanging steam releasing stop, beside our area of bug flying.

When they come closer, we could hear them say," The mules are arriving! There go the mule drivers toward Gary." The mule drivers were on the other side of Tug River from where we were playing, passing by the coal tipple. They were carrying mouth bits, and leather trace lines in their hands and over their shoulders. These drivers were all black men, walking along in joyous jocularity with each other and appeared eager to receive their charges that were to be unloaded from railcars at Gary, two miles from Venus then taken to the barn for mine work training.

These men knew the behavior of a Mule. They had worked most of their lives with them in agricultural fields throughout the south. They talked a language that the mule understood, such as " Don't you look at me like that!" he would say, "Now mule you are not the boss I'm the boss; don't you flick one ear forward an one to the rear, like you can't hear me!"

The game of the day was over, when we saw the mule drivers walking toward Gary. June bugs could be seen flying away, with strings tied to their legs because our interest had clearly shifted to the thought of going to Gary to see the mules.

With gleeful cavorting and raised voices saying, "Let's follow the drivers," In anticipation of watching the mules being unloaded from the train, we started to chase after them following the railroad tracks on our side of the river.

Halfway from Gary we fell in behind the mule drivers, as they walked to our side of the river across a railroad bridge that serviced Venus coal tipple. The girls had decided to stay at Venus and not go with us boys to Gary to watch the unloading of the mules. We knew not to join the Drivers in their conversation or distract them in any manner, because they were on a mission that didn't require our participation so we kept a " no participation " distance behind them, while double dog daring each other to ask for a ride on a mule back to Venus.

The Norfolk & Western Railway tracks formed a triangle around the ticket station at Gary. This triangle was used to position the engine for pulling rather than pushing passenger or coal gondola type cars and freight cars. The station was located on the north, northwest corner of the triangle. There was a wood plank fence that enclosed the space inside of the triangle that also enclosed a small building. The building would become a part of my life during WWII during the summer of 1944, at the age of sixteen, when I worked with a crew of surveyors.

In order to get a greater BTU for making steel at their steel plants at Gary Indiana to support the War effort, US Steel built a large coal cleaning plant between Alpheus and Wilcoe communities. I played a key part in the construction of this plant that required several new rail tracks for a rail yard to service the cleaning plant. A large fill area was needed between the existing rail line and Tug River to support a new rail yard. Also there was a need for a rail line to gravity feed empty coal cars, to run from the cleaning plant to the community of Ream which I helped survey five years later.

A survey crew of four men, most often consists of a transit man, a rod man, a chainman and an axe man. I was the low man on the totem pole or I should say boy! Because I was the operator of the bush axe, when I worked with a N&W R.R crew that surveyed the right away for the rail system; out of the office in the fenced triangle.

The transit man was the engineer in charge of the crew. Where he pointed is where I would cut a vision path, I soon learned to keep an eye out for snakes, especially in fox grape vines because birds liked to eat the small wild grapes and the snakes liked to eat the birds. Sometimes I would cut a snake into two parts before I would see it, at other times, one would be falling out of the vines when I first noticed it. When this happened the snake and I ran to get away from each other. Most of the time they were Black snakes. But I cut a Copperhead into two parts on one occasion.

Building of a coal cleaning plant and surveying for N&W RR was to occur in the future of August 1940. But on this day, when the Mule Drivers and boys from Venus arrived at Gary station, they could see other Mule Drivers and boys were just arriving to mingle in with those that had arrived early.

The cars that had transported the mules, were already sitting on the Southwest track section of the triangle with the mules still aboard awaiting to be unloaded. Most of the boys positioned themselves on top of the board fence to watch the unloading.

The mules appeared restless by snorting and moving around. Due to their distance of travel, I could not blame them. Their journey had begun from places, far away from where they were now.

Mule buyers had gone forth throughout southern and mid western states for hundreds of miles in order to fill purchase requisitions of mine owners. The buyers were looking for mules that were young and healthy. Buyers had gone to Stock Yards, visited Farms and Plantations where they could examine and purchase mules that were strong enough to work in the mines. Years later in the Army I was told, "I had arrived at a place, where it was mind over matter. They didn't mind and I didn't matter." On this day the drivers did mind and the mules did matter, because they were a high value piece of property and would be treated accordingly and with kindness, although a rigid week or two of obedience training to work in the mine was in store for them.

The mules were looking at us with a fixed stare as we peered in at them through the slat opening of the stock cars. Their twitching ears, long faces with large brown eyes appeared to be trying to understand what was going to happen next, and all of us boys perched on top of the fence were more ignorant than the mules as to what would happen next.

We didn't have to wait very long until a car arrived with several mine officials. One of them shouted," Start unloading the mules." The drivers moved into action, opening all doors and positioning them into place to serve as a ramp for unloading. Drivers went aboard talking to the mules like as if they had worked together just yesterday, and now it was time to go to work. Some of the mules followed their handlers after bridle and bit was placed on them but others needed a little coaxing, such as a slap on the hip, a half closed fist jab in the rib to get his attention and then he was heard to say, "Mule you have got a lot to learn and I'm going to teach you! So come along, because you are going to school with me."

As the mules came off of the train they were being held by their driver handlers, holding tightly to the bridle near the bit .Yet one of the mules got loose and ran along the tracks in the direction of number six (Ream community) acting like he didn't want any part of the work that was in store for him. He would have run a long way except he ran past a restaurant and beer garden, that served black people only (The year 1940, was a period of racial segregation). Several black men ran out and caught him. The driver was a younger man that let the mule get away. He took a good natured ribbing from the older men that caught and returned his mule to him. They were miners also.

The assignment of which mules went where was finally sorted out among the drivers, and you couldn't get an OK of a triple double dare out of anyone if an offer was made to ride a mule back to Venus, after one of the mules kicked the fence that knocked seven or eight boys off of the fence that included me. The same mule bit one mule, kicked another mule, and also tried to bite his driver. I remembered this mule many years later when I was told why a second Lieutenant was called a shave tail, was because in the days of horse Calvary, if a horse tried to injure you they would shave his tail so everyone knew to keep an eye on him until he learned how to function in the system. I kept my eye on many a second Lieutenant bucking for a promotion to captain until he was promoted to first Lieutenant then he hence-forth would settle into the system.

The drivers were told to take the mules to the barn. Three groups formed and started to move toward their respective barns. One group of six went toward Alpheus number two mine community. Another group of seven were taken to Ream number six mine community. The last group of which consisted of nine, were taken to Venus number ten community.

Everyday for a week after their arrival at Venus the boys of Venus, to include some girls, of our age and a few adults, sat straddling or leaning on the fence surrounding the barn yard to watch the mules being trained to obey and prove their strength for mine work.

Four or five mules at a time were hitched to different make shift wooden sleds, that were made by nailing 2x6 boards across 4x4 timbers that made a sled 5 feet wide and 6 feet long. Large rocks weighing hundreds of pounds were lashed to the top of the sleds the mules were made to pull under the urging of some drivers that had a bullwhip.

Each mule was told to stop and go but when they didn't respond to the command to go, they were given a touch of the whip on their rump followed by cracking of the whip in the air around them. After a few days the whips disappeared because they were responding to all commands given to them.
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To better understand a mule as a beast of burden, we have to look at the mule genealogy. It is the offspring of a female horse and a male donkey.

A mule looks somewhat like both of its parents. Like the donkey, a mule has long ears, short mane, small feet, and a tail with a tuft of long hairs at the end. From the mother it gets a large shaped body and strong muscles. She also gives it a horse's ease in getting used to harness. The father gives the mule its sure-footedness and endurance. An important quality from the father is the way a mule saves its strength when it is forced to work hard for a long time. It is less likely to suffer from overwork than a horse.

Unfortunately, mules don't have offspring of their own, except in extremely rare cases. All male mules and most female mules are sterile.

Mules remain strong under much harsh treatment and work, but they work better when they are treated with kindness, as owners and handlers come to understand. They will do as much work as horses, and under harder conditions. The way mules can bear rough treatment makes them suitable for work in mines and harsher operations in mountainous terrain.

I feel I was very fortunate for not being compelled to work in a coalmine I recognize this as a honest and a noble endeavor to make a living for yourself and family. I know it's also a detriment to one's health and safety. I had a dad and four brothers as well as neighbors that worked in the mines. My boyhood friend Walter Lockhart of Venus and my good friend Buddy French from Gary have all been an outstanding source of a general understanding of a coalmine interior. Especially the article, "My first night in the mines," written by Buddy French. I have been told that where the mules were quartered inside the mine, they were given fresh water and Hi-Grade feed at all times. They were also brought out of the mines on most weekends to outside stables.

Within a day or two after they were subjected to their barnyard training at Venus, the mules were taken to the mine. They were taken to turn hole hollow for entry into number four mine where my father worked. I was at the barn on the day the mules were taken away and had mixed feelings about their future, such as; Would the work be too hard for them? Would they get hurt or maybe even get killed? These were the thoughts that were going through my twelve year- old mind as the mules walked out of sight around a bend in the road to work underground and I would never see them again after enjoying their company and learning to like them for a short while.

A few weeks after the mules went to the mine. My father told me about some mules that ran away at the mine where he worked. He said the mules started to run when they heard some unfamiliar noise, which caused them to take out some support timbers when the load they were pulling left the track. He also said the mule during this incident that broke his leg was the same mule that tried to run away during the unloading at Gary. My thoughts were I wished they had not caught him. I asked my father what did they do with him after they put him down and he said, they brought him to the outside and buried him. I thought, " Poor O'L mule!! When he ran away before, did he fear this might happen to him?"

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