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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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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