In our fast-paced world, it's refreshing to experience the ways of bygone times. I was fortunate to get a call from Juanita Waters last Thursday afternoon about a photo opportunity in Joseph. Juanita's husband, Larry, had hooked up his two mules to rake a 20-acre piece of land.
Larry was taking a break when I arrived with camera in hand. The Joseph farmer sat perched a top an old red car seat that was attached to the grass rake. His mules, Ernie and Sis, patiently munched on loose blades of grass that lay in parallel rows stretching across the field.
After I climbed on board and got myself situated, Larry told the mules to get up, gradually starting our slow trod across the land. "This is the first time that I have ever raked a field using mules but I've wanted to for a long time," Waters said.
As we rode along I could only imagine what life was like back in the days before cars commanded the roads and tractors managed the work loads on our nations farms. " Mules and horses were the cars and tractors and were used in almost every thing you did," Waters said. "Although mules, pound for pound can pull their own weight, unlike a horse."
The 15-year-old mules seemed to sense their role without much guidance from the reins that Waters held in his weathered hands. "This team has been broke, things don't bother them much," he said.
It takes about three months to train mules and the most important thing to train them is the word "whoa." They learn to trust you and know that when you stop you will fix whatever is wrong.
Ernie and Sis both wear blinders to prevent them from seeing behind. "Their eyes are a lot like ours except that they can see better behind them so they wear blinders which prevents them from being spooked by sudden movements," Waters said.
Sis is kind of lazy, always has been, just like some people, Waters said.
She used to be one of five mules to pull the stagecoach for the Walla Walla 59's, a riding group from Walla Walla, Wash. The stage coach was one of the original stage coaches that was used back in the 1800's that traveled between Wallula, Wash., and Orofino,Idaho.
Ernie's the worker of the two. "He's just a good mule: you can ride him, pack him or drive him," Waters said.
We made our second round of the field raking the dried grass into a continuously growing strip that reached increasingly higher. A warm late summer breeze blew out of the south filling the air with the aroma of the field.
"There aren't many people in the valley that use mules or horses for doing work around their farms any more," Waters said. "They will do anything that a tractor will do," he added. Now it's more of a hobby thing. A lot of people like to see how things used to be done. "After all, it is part of our history," he said.
Waters handed the reins to me on the way back toward my car. I found that there was more of a bond between mule and man than I had anticipated. Ernie and Sis seemed to sense the change, drifting from the line that they so carefully walked as they delivered me back to the present.