A Memory From My Youth
Inez Chaney Dunlap
© Copyright 2001 by Inez Chaney Dunlap
Photo by Frank McCormick. © Peggy McCormick.
Did the sun really burn hotter in the late 1940's? Surely the ice cream was sweeter and the honeysuckle had a more engulfing, pungent smell. Of those distant lingering memories, one of the most demanding is July the 4th and the Rosedale, Mississippi, mule races!
I realize how bizarre racing mules may sound to the modern ear. Indeed there may be those who have never seen a mule. However, mules were not a half-forgotten beast in the 1940's. Many still did yeoman duty in the cotton fields, plowing the rich black earth to prepare it for the seed. Then plowing again to rid the furrows of the dreaded weed.
The mules and the men , black as the earth they plowed, made a magnificent team. It was the combined sweat from the straining muscles of this team that made the rich Delta soil give up its bounty of life-sustaining cotton. Man and mule knew each other as only those who toil long hours in mutual dependency can know. There was great pride in a good mule. What better way then to give your mule its hour of glory? What fine bragging rights to own or ride the best, fastest mule in the Delta! MULE RACES!
Now don't think that the general population of the Delta could pass up such a spectacle. We could sense the closeness and pride involved and all wanted to be a part of it. The race was held on the Country Club golf course, much to the disgruntlement of some players.
Fourth of July! Holiday! Mule races! All these blended into sights and sounds of excitement. Poor golf course. It was shredded for months afterward. What the hooves and feet didn't destroy, the tires of cars trying to get a close parking place did. A rough, thick rope with colored flag flapping at intervals formed the oval which served as a track.
From the hastily built platform in the center Neal Streater ruled as announcer, comedian of sorts, and general director of affairs. What Neal lacked in sophisticated stage presence, he made up for with a booming and ceaseless dialog, laced with a spicy "hell or "damn" here and there.
Commander of the betting booth was always Colonel Elliott. Just how he computed the odds and determined the winning amounts, nobody seemed to exactly know. My mother, Mary Chaney, and Julia McGee often helped out with the process, strong-minded women both. But Colonel Elliott bore a more sophisticated air than most, and I never knew anyone to seriously challenge his decisions.
The mules were kept under the trees at one end of the track while they were waiting for their time to compete and entered the track through an opening at that end. What added excitement this created! When the mules thundered toward that first curve, only a thin rope separated the mules from the cool comfort of the trees. In almost every race one or two strong-willed beasts would break through and declare their racing day over!
So this was one element in picking a winner. Could the rider manage to get his mule around the first curve? Experience gave me additional insight. Never bet on a big, strong, slick, healthy looking mule. It was always the scrawny, wormy looking one who could run like the wind. Of course, remember, they might run like the wind back to the trees!
What excitement those races were. When the official starter dropped his flag, away they would go with great whooping, whips flailing and dust flying. That is, most would go. Every now and then a mule failed to see the need to run around a track and just stood there regardless of the rider's frustrated efforts.
If a rider successfully rounded that daunting first curve his troubles were not always over. Occasionally a mule would realize he had missed his desired exit and simply turn around and trot back down the track to the coolness. Then, too, it was not too unusual for an inexperienced "jocky" to slip off the bare back of his mount. Rider-less mules were not eligible to win. But with a little luck your mule would make it all the way around, with rider, and come thundering back to the finish line. I don't remember having much or any money to really bet, but I always picked a mule and cheered for it with great gusto.
Sometimes there were special events at the races. At the last races I remember there appeared on the scene a most unlikely character. He was a black man who called himself Wild Bill Hickock.
Now all the cowboys I had seen were Roy Rogers, Lash La Rue, Johnny Mack Brown and all the other "heros" at the Rosedale picture show. To see a black man all dressed up is chaps, spurs, ten- gallon hat, etc. was such an oddity to me, it seemed hilariously funny.
Wild Bill's final act (perhaps literally) was to ride a wild mule! And indeed "wild" was an understatement. "Possessed" might be more accurate. With a man holding on to each ear, I have never seen such snorting, bucking, and kicking as that wild mule did before Wild Bill ever got close. When he finally threw his fancily dressed leg over the back of that mule there was an explosion of motion, with rearing and snorting and arms and legs flying in every direction. Well that mule bucked all over the infield, then broke through the huge rope onto the track. He bucked across the track and broke through the rope on the other side. All the while Wild Bill was holding on for dear life! He bucked out across the golf course, through the fence and up onto the levee. Away they went bucking down the levee and out of sight with Wild Bill stuck like glue. Later I asked and asked but no one knew what had become of Wild Bill and his wild mule.
Tractors finally came
along in the Delta and made mules more and more scarce. The volunteer fire
department finally got enough money for the new engine, which was why they started the
mule races in the first place. So the mule races faded into history as
most things do. But if you ever visit the Mississippi Delta and ride down the top of the
levee to see what you can see, keep an eye out for old Wild Bill 'cause
as far as I know he's out there riding yet.
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