The Mountain Laurel
The Journal of Mountain Life

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from the
Heart of the Blue Ridge

That Mule And Me

By John W. Stoneberger © 1987

Issue: August, 1987

Grandpa John Scott Roach said, "The mule was by far the best animal for the bark wagons in the mountains. They were strong, tough in both heat and cold, sure footed, loosely broken to harness and for a little love and fair temperament, they would gladly give you a full days work for shelter, clean water, 8 ears of corn and a good fork of hay."

The mules of Grandpa's were very handsome animals; 1200 pound blocky body, fine posture with heads held high, manes and tales trimmed to perfection with feet well shod.

I have heard it said, "Grandpa may dress in a fading blue shirt and a well worn pair of overalls with a few patches here and there, but his wagons were well greased and maintained and his 4 mule team was a picture of health and strength. Well harnessed in a good quality of leather well oiled."

The rain fall in the mountains is much more than the valley, maybe as much as 80 inches per year. As the team worked 6 days per week, they went through many showers on the road.

Under the hard leather collars of the harness was a padding about 2 inches thick that was used to cushion the shoulders on the mule to protect the animal from pain, bruise and soreness, as they put great pressure on that area in the pull.

If the padding got wet from rain it could cause a shoulder to rub raw and make a red, raw, ugly, painful sore that could cause scar.

These mules were loved like one of the family. Everyone was concerned with their good welfare.

About once a year Grandpa would butcher a beef. Very carefully Grandma tanned the hides which were used to make housing for the collars on mule harnesses. Tailored so the brass knobs on the harness went through two holes in the housing to hold it firmly in place to keep the padding dry. To insure the comfort and protection of the valuable animal that pulled the heavy bark loads 15 miles to town and brought back money for Grandpa, tea for Grandma and candy for the kids.

The mountaineer enjoyed few luxuries. The singer sewing machine and Victrola (a record player) being two of the first to play a part in his humble joyful life, if he was well off enough to afford them. The mule did much in helping to bring these items to a few mountain homes.

1916 the prosperous, happy Roach family of Lewis Mountain suffered a terrible loss when John Scott Roach died at 67 years old. And the bark wagons rolled no more.

The day soon came the mules didn't go in harness, but stood almost in formation in the pasture near the spring house, overlooking the main house and garden, as Grandpa was lowered into his resting place in the family graveyard; where the lilacs and roses bloom in the peaceful mountains.

With much regret a sale soon took place where anxious buyers haggled over a price for the prestigious mule team and equipment.

Coley drew the short straw to be the mule to remain and retire on the Lewis Mountain homeplace. She being the oldest, best looking, good natured, most faithful, obedient to her work as a team or single line leader that both women or youth could work in the garden.

Coley was one of the wheel horse mules that had pulled the bark wagons 20 years and now she did while away her days in the 90 acres of lush blue grass pasture field with plenty of shade and cold spring water.

Grandma wrote to Elizabeth, my mother, in the valley and said, "If you have any need for Coley, I will send her over by Jessie." Which she did.

Coley plowed the peach orchard, garden and what small work was done lovingly and cheerfully, but after a week of nothing to do she disappeared.

The loss of the mule distressed and worried us, so we watched the sky for buzzards or tracks where she may have left the farm, but found no sign of disappearance.

A letter came from Grandma and said, "Elizabeth, we went out to the barn to feed the animals this morning and Coley was in her stall. We don't know how she got there."

Oh! What good news to know Coley was safe at home. Many questions were left unanswered in our minds. Knowing mules have a dislike for rivers and bridges, how did she travel 20 miles home? Did she travel cross country and jump fences, swim rivers, or by highway and walk the bridges of the Shenandoah River?

Put a mule intelligence anywhere you like, but Coley knew there was no better place on earth then her Blue Ridge mountain home.

There is something that draws my heart just like Coley's to the same house foundation, spring, and graveyard, where I pray and find a special blessing in my soul.

I believe Grandpa lived about 50 years of the best mountain life of all ages, on Lewis Mountain, with its abundant resources where there were no restrictions, and love was the law that ruled.

As I think about the valuable mountain mule, their true worth, the role they played in history, a recital by Walter Brennan of a Cliff Crofford song, comes to my mind and it goes something like this:

"When I was a boy growing up, there was a man we called Old Rivers who worked a big black mule name Midnight.

He would plow those rows long and straight, I would walk behind him and bust up those clods with my own bare feet. Old Rivers was a friend of mine.

If Midnight began to get hot, he would rest him a few minutes in the shade. He would take a big red handkerchief out of his pocket and wipe his cheerful face and bald head and he would say, 'Boy! One of these days I'm going to climb that mountain! I'm going up where the cotton grows tall, the corn is green and those fields you don't have to plow!'

I grew up and left home, had been gone for some time and one day I got a letter from Mama. It said:

'Dear Son;

You know your Dad and I are getting older, and we are concerned with our wandering boy. We go to our little church every Sunday and pray you can find the peace for your heart you are searching for, and the road that leads back home. And by the way, your good friend Old Rivers died last week. There were quite a few at his funeral.'

When I read those words I dropped to my knees in deep remorse, I prayed. 'Dear God in Heaven, forgive me of my many sins, guide me on your righteous pathway and help me to lead others in your way.'

As the spirit of forgiveness swept over me and the joy of salvation entered my heart, I rose to my feet and said, 'One of these days! I am going to climb that mountain! I'm going up where the cotton grows tall, the corn is green and those fields you don't have to plow! Old Rivers, that mule, and me.'"