While mules might seem an unlikely topic for a column, these animals have played an important role in agriculture, industry, and transportation throughout history. In the United States, they were used to build roads, railroads, dams, and canals, by farmers to work their fields, as pack animals for the Army and for settlers traveling West, and for countless other purposes. By definition, a mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse or mare.
In Knox County, mules tilled the fields, were used to build roads and levees, worked in the county’s coal mines, pulled school hacks, and performed many other tasks, especially those that involved any type of hauling. When streetcar service began in Vincennes in 1883, mules even pulled the first cars.
Mules were bred and sold in the county. A good span of mules (a matched pair) was extremely valuable.
In the first part of the 20th century, no local man raised higher quality mules than William Rice Crackel, whose Brook Haven Stock Farm was located just east of Vincennes on the Monroe City Road. Crackel’s mules brought big prices at the sales he held on his farm. In March 1912, he put 40 head up for sale, mostly two and three-year-olds, and a single span brought $680, a record in the county at that time. Three more spans were each sold in the range of $450 each.
In October 1913, Crackel bought a pair of three-year-old mules at the American Royal Livestock Show in Kansas City, Missouri, for the then astronomical sum of $1,000 (nearly $27,000 in today’s money). The mules were said to be some of the finest in the world. Crackel also paid $500 for a yearling mule at that same sale. He could well afford these prices as he had amassed wealth through real estate, banking, farming, raising stock, and developing his oil land in Illinois.
His mules won many prizes. At the 1914 Indiana State Fair, they took first place in almost every category he entered.
Another Knox County man who became well-known for buying and selling mules was Henry Volle. Volle’s Linwood Farm was in Widner Township. The July 1936 issue of Prairie Farmer magazine, a widely read periodical among Midwest farmers, even carried a picture of his farm and 33 head of his mules and discussed the high demand for quality mules.
The 1937 Knox County Farm Atlas boasted that there were 1,456 mules in the county that year and the county led mule production in Indiana.
Working with mules could be dangerous. There are many accounts in local newspapers of people being kicked by a frightened or recalcitrant mule and either painfully injured or killed. On the morning of Aug. 13, 1914, 31-year-old Joseph Edmondson, a Vincennes teamster, was driving a team of mules hauling gravel along Hickman Street (now College Avenue) when he stopped to adjust one of the animal’s reins, standing on the tongue of his wagon to do so. The mules then became agitated and lunged, knocking him to the ground and kicking him fatally.
On July 29, 1935, Thomas Nulton, 58, a farm hand working south of Vincennes, was killed in a stampede of mules. Nulton had been in a barn tossing hay down for the mules when he fell and was trampled. He died at Good Samaritan Hospital that afternoon.
There were mules that achieved a level of fame, too. In 1902, it was reported that one Orlando Siple, a Pike County farmer, and a distant relative of former Indiana Gov. James D. “Blue Jeans” Williams, owned a mule, that he had purchased from the late governor. The mule, named Kate, was over 30 years old and well beyond her working years, but was enjoying a well-earned retirement on the Siple farm, housed in her own stall and getting only the best feed.
The number of horses and mules reached its peak in the United States in 1920, at over 25 million animals, then, due to mechanization, began a steady decline. By 1960, the combined number stood at just over 3 million.