Bob Casey had been living in Wallowa County as a forest ranger in Wallowa County for about two years when he came up with the ideas of putting together an event for mules here a quarter of a century ago.
The mule show, based on the Bishop Mule Days in California which Casey had competed in, has had its up and downs through the years, but is not only surviving, but thriving, in 2006. It will celebrate its 26th enactment Friday through Sunday. (See preview story on Page B1).
When Hells Canyon Mule Days honored Casey this year by choosing him as grand marshal of the 2006 celebration, they couldn't have picked a bigger fan of the mule.
"A mule isn't any smarter than a horse, but he spends a lot more time thinking," Casey said. "He'll stand around and wonder whether the electric fence is on or whether someone might have left the gate open at the other end of the pasture. He's always thinking."
For years, Casey competed with his two mules Jack and Mack, at Hells Canyon Mule Days in everything from relay races to team driving; they are gone now, but he is thinking of breeding a couple of good mares he has to a jack, and raising a new team.
Now 65, Casey said his first exposure to mules was when he was growing up in a small dairy community in New York and the Amish who lived nearby used them for their fieldwork. "All of them had nice big sorrel mules out of Belgian mares. That's what they liked," he remembered.
As a youth, Casey grew up with horses, and ended up work for a big sales yard in New York operated by an ex-mobster that handled horses and mules. In high school road trips to deliver horses from the sale yard exposed him to the wonders of the Western U.S.
He started out college in the East in pre-medicine - his father was a doctor - but decided instead to transfer into forestry at North Arizona University and never looked back. "I couldn't wait to get out of the East," Casey recalled.
When he first started working for the U.S. Forest Service as a young man he got his first hands-on experience with mules. " I had the good fortune to work with a Forest Service packer. On my days off, I'd volunteer," he said.
He remembers his first mules, Nip and Tuck, he bought when he was working in California. During his Forest Service career, Casey said he worked in most Western states, including Oregon where he came in 1979 to become Eagle Cap Wilderness district ranger; in 1988 he was transferred to Montana, but kept his small ranch nine miles north of Enterprise and returned here a few years ago when he retired.
"I've been in a lot of little towns in the West and this is the finest," Casey said. "There is no question in my mind that people-wise and community-wise, this is the best."
While the Mule Days event he helped get started has had its ups and downs through the years, Casey himself has experienced a down period himself in the past year.
Last August, the retired ranger intended to take a limb off a tree near his house, but tripped and fell with a running chain saw. He cut off his left hand, but managed to drive his pick-up to Wallowa Memorial Hospital and collapse in the parking lot. After being stabilized, he was flown to Oregon Health Science University in Portland, where it was hoped his hand could be re-attached. That proved not to be possible and Casey spent only one night there.
Back in Wallowa County, he healed quickly and adjusted to his normal life with one hand - including playing "squeeze box" in a group of old-time musicians, including his wife Jan, serving on the Wallowa County Museum Board of Directors and other activities.
However, in late May he suffered a setback when an infection in his right foot ended up in his bone, and he required a mid-calf amputation. Casey has been a little slower to bounce back from this medical crisis, but is confident that he will soon be back on his feet when he is able to be fitted with a prosthesis. "I didn't get slowed down until they whacked my leg off. I'm slowed down for a while, but not for long," he said.
"If I wrote a book, no one would believe me," Casey said, shaking his head.
Casey is happy that after Mule Days almost died a few years ago that a new group, headed by chairman Sondra Lozier, revived the event. He noted that mules have grown in popularity in recent years throughout the country and are a lot better bred and trained than during the first year, when many of them were pack train animals who had rarely or never been ridden before.
He recalled Manford and Vera Isley, Steve Cavallaro, Jerry Weniger, Darlene Graffi, Gerald Perren and Max Walker were among those who helped get that first wild and wooly show off the ground.
Grand marshal Bob Casey may need a little help getting into a mule-drawn buggy for this Saturday's Hells Canyon Mule Days parade, but parade spectators can expect a warm and genuine smile from the man who helped turn the spotlight on mules during one weekend every year in Wallowa County for a quarter of a century.