Grand marshal Bennie Banks thinks highly of mules

Ben Banks with dog Molly and a photo of himself at age five with a mule. Photo by Elane Dickenson

There's little doubt that this year's grand marshal of the Hells Canyon Mule Days parade is the right man for the job.

At age 89, Bennie Banks of Joseph not only still works for a local outfitter business, but he thinks very highly of mules as a species.

"I still do some riding for Eagle Cap Pack Station when they call. I did the cooking for them for six deluxe camps this summer," Banks said.

Banks grew up in Wyoming around horses and mules, and though he's worked at a lot of different things during his life, he said he's always come back to them. Through his life he's been a ranch hand, a mechanic, a cook, a teacher, and the owner of his own packer and guide business.

"I tell people that it's easy to retire - I've done it three times," Banks joked.

Banks considers the floppy-eared stars of this weekend's Hells Canyon Mule Days very special animals.

"A mule is a very smart critter, much smarter than a horse," Banks said. "If you work with them you get to the point you love them. Each one is a unique individual."

Among the souvenirs Banks received from the Hells Canyon Mule Days Committee is an enlarged framed copy of a photo of himself as a young boy, probably about five, standing beside a mule.

He left home when he was 12 because his father was a railroad man always on the move, living in town most of the time, and he wanted to live on a ranch. "We weren't mad at each other or anything," he said about leaving the family nest so young.

Arrangements were made and he went to live and work on a ranch while going to school. "I milked a lot of cows," he recalled. "You couldn't get a cowboy or ranch hand to milk a cow - usually the ranch wives did it - so they welcomed me with open arms."

Throughout his growing up years, Banks did whatever needed done on a farm, including fixing fence, mending harnesses, cleaning barns and packing horses and mules for hunting trips.

One summer he worked for the Civilian Conservation Corps as a change of pace, cooking for a camp building a road in the Jackson Hole, Wyo., area, He lived with his parents again during his senior year of high school, graduating from high school in 1934 in Bancroft, Idaho.

After high school Banks worked at service stations and garages, learning to be a mechanic along the way. He was married, the father of three children, and was living in Salmon, Idaho, when he listened to a U.S. Navy recruiter and signed up for the U.S. Naval Reserve in July of 1941. Although told all he'd be required to do was drill once a month, Banks never heard another word from the Navy until he was called to active duty near the middle of March 1942.

Banks spent the next six years aboard a ship - a submarine catcher or a tank landing ship - as an engineer "keeping the ship running" below deck. He also taught diesel mechanics to many of the young sailors who came aboard.

After he was discharged from active duty, Banks remained in the Navy Reserves until he was 60. For a number of years after returning to Idaho he owned half interest in a service station and half interest in an ambulance service, getting help from his sons when they were in high school. When they started getting married and going to college, Banks sold out.

Recruited by a friend, Banks worked for 16 years for Lewis-Clark State College teaching mechanics in Lewiston, Idaho, before retiring at age 65.

Banks first came to Wallowa County in 1982 to help out one of his sons, Ben, who had been employed by High Wallowas gondola to try to introduce downhill skiing at Wallowa Lake. The younger Ben left the area, but his father stayed on, leasing the Wallowa Lake Wilderness Pack Station at Wallowa Lake for four years.

By this time he was a widower, and Banks said that mules played a part in his decision to propose marriage to his wife Estelle.

One day on the trail, returning from a pack trip into the wilderness, that he recalled thinking, "It's such a nice a nice feeling to look back on a line of mules and watch them walk along in cadence, their ears swinging." While looking back at that line of mules, he decided to make a very important proposal over dinner that evening.

She had the same idea, and Bennie and Estelle Banks have now been married almost 20 years.

"I'd never been on a horse before I met Bennie," Estelle Banks said. While she enjoyed going along on pack trips with her husband, she admitted she was never much of a hand. Estelle Banks will proudly ride alongside her husband in a mule-drawn wagon Saturday in the parade. "There's no one better," she said.

After getting out of the packing business for himself, Banks worked for former Mule Day grand marshals Manford and Vera Isley at High Wallowa Wilderness Pack Station, which was later sold to the McDowells and renamed Eagle Cap Wilderness Pack Station. He also worked for Cal Henry a couple of seasons at Minam Lodge.

While he's slowed down some, Banks still owns two horses and two mules, and has no real plans to "retire" again completely.

"I think it's a privilege and real nice of them to ask," said Banks about filling the role of Mules Day grand marshal.

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