Mulling the Missouri Mule

Mulling the Missouri Mule

One of the many observances that will occur this month is National Mule Day on Oct. 26. While our state’s official animal isn’t as much of a muse for verse and imagery as the horse, this creature has helped countless Missouri farmers and loggers and has contributed mightily to our state’s development and history. Ogden Nash, a satirical poet who has penned a litany of animal-themed verses, says this, “In the world of mules there are no rules.”

This magnificent hybrid bears the maternal genetics of speed, athleticism, courage and vigor, combined with its paternal traits of intelligence, strength, endurance, patience and sure-footedness. Mules have become synonymous with stubbornness, ironically similar to the reluctant tone of our state’s “Show-Me” motto, but experts explain that mules’ deliberate, thoughtful caution can easily be misconstrued as obstinacy. It is this same precautionary disposition that has made mules the most trustworthy ride across rough terrain and one of the most resilient working animals in the world.

Even-tempered and hardy, mules are globally used to haul people, pull carts to market and till soil, and in America, mules pulled pioneers’ wagons and helped mobilize troops and supplies in times of war. During the late 1800s, demand for Missouri timber grew exponentially as the forests in eastern and southern states were depleted by western expansion and the Civil War. The bountiful Ozarks offered the perfect tall pine trees to fill this void, but since the area was too rugged and remote for rail systems, mules became instrumental in hauling logs to nearby sawmills and railroads. These pine logs were used primarily as railroad ties for train tracks across the Great Plains.

This photo from the Missouri State Archives depicts President Truman with his mule, Susie, at the Missouri State Fair.

Missouri was the nation’s leading producer of mules from 1870-1900 and is said to have one of the best mule heritages in the world, exporting over 500,000 mules to other states and countries during its peak. During the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, mules bred in Missouri won top awards for the sheen of their coats, 16-hands height and incredible strength, characteristics “without which no mule can ever attain real greatness,” a newspaper reported. The term “Missouri Mule” was coined at this worldwide event.

It is easy to see why the mule was declared our state’s official animal; however, getting this passed by the Missouri Legislature was years in the making, partly because the mule could be too easily confused with the donkey, the symbol of the Democratic party. A Navy veteran of World War II, Charles “Woody” Woodward, who was onboard the Missouri USS when Japan surrendered to the United States and witnessed how mules had assisted with military operations during each of our wars, led this charge, saying, “The mule was a vet, just like us. We never lost a war a mule was involved in.” Woodward enlisted the support of other veterans, recruited a coalition of supporters and led a statewide campaign to popularize the notion and persuade legislators to adopt the “mule bill.”

Another staunch supporter and partner to Woodward was Melvin Bradley, an animal science professor at the University of Missouri, founder of the Missouri Muleskinners Society and author of “The Missouri Mule: His Origin and Times.” He utilized his expertise and extensive background on mules to advocate for the state designation, explaining, “I found that the mule has so much more personality than a horse. A mule is highly intelligent. He will outsmart you.”

Backed by veterans, military organizations, professors and publishers of mule magazines who realized how important and vital mules were to the development of the Show-Me State, House Bill 84 finally passed and was signed into law in 1995 by Gov. Mel Carnahan, who grew up in rural Shannon County and recalled the mule was “the first animal I ever rode.”

While Missouri is the only state that has named the mule its official animal, this intelligent worker is the mascot for the United States Military Academy at West Point and the University of Central Missouri in Warrensburg. Springfield hosts Ozark Mule Days on Labor Day weekend in southwest Missouri, and the Clark County Mule Festival is celebrated the third full weekend in September in our state’s northeast corner.

Perhaps these unique characteristics and qualities are the reasoning behind the old expression and lyrics of a classic bluegrass song, “Don’t worry ‘bout the mule, just load the wagon.”

This article appeared in the Joplin Globe’s Better Living publication on Oct. 7, 2022.