by Jaine Treadwell
||Don Renfroe of Brundidge, with granddaughter Marley Dawson, is a modern-day mule skinner. In his eyes, an ugly ol’ mule is the prettiest thing in the world. His mules, Bonnie and Clyde, live in the pasture next to his house and are the first things he sees every morning when he leaves the house; and that starts his day off just right.
Ask Don Renfroe about his first love and he’ll chuckle. What man wouldn’t if his first love was….. a mule?
Just when Renfroe fell in love with the "ugly ol" animals," he’s not sure. Perhaps it was when he was watching the beast of burden behind his grandpa’s plow, trudging along pulling the dull plow through the hard, red clay fields of Pike County with the sun beating down and not even a stir of a breeze.
"I guess if I think about it, I got interested in mules back when I was a boy," Renfroe said. "I loved to watch a mule work in the field. There was just something about a mule, not anything pretty - just some kind of special. I’ve just never forgotten how it was when I was growing up."
Renfroe grew up loving mules and with a fondness for the men who worked them. "There was nothing that I would rather do than sit around and listen to the old timers talk," he said. "I reckon they did more storytelling than talking. I loved their stories and many of the stories had to do with mules because mules were so important to the farm."
Renfroe developed into quite a storyteller himself and many days he can be found "rared back" at the Pike Farmers Co-op in Brundidge doing his share of both listening to stories and telling.
"Mules built this country," Renfroe said, pushing his cap back and narrowing his eyes. "Yep, they built it, but they get a bad rap. George Washington brought mules to this country. The King of Spain gave him a donkey - a mammoth jack. Royal Gift is what the donkey’s name was. George Washington bred the donkey to one of his horses and that’s where America got its mules."
Washington used the mules on his plantation and found that the mules could do the work that horses couldn’t.
|Marley, Renfroe’s oldest grand-daughter, is as fond of mules as her grandpa. He promised her a wagon for the mules to pull and he made good on that promise. Marley’s crayon drawing of a mule and wagon is one of Renfroe’s prized possessions.
"Mules are hardy animals and they would work the marshes when horses couldn’t," Renfroe said. "The ol’ ugly hard-luck animals became America’s beasts of burden.
"The mule has been the source of power on the American farm since way back then. Like I said, the mules built this nation."
Mule farming was farming in Pike County for many years. Renfroe remembers sitting in school and looking out the window and watching Golden Johnston plow his farm across the road with mules.
"That was in 1966, so it really hasn’t been that long since the mules were put in the barn for good," he said. "I guess it was like that all across the country."
America didn’t invent the mule; Renfroe said the animals have been around for a long, long time. "Probably near the beginning of time," Renfroe said. "The Bible speaks of them."
And, Renfroe speaks most highly of them. "Most people say that mules are ugly but, to me, they are pretty," he said. "But, then I’m kind of different."
Different in that he has a love for an overworked and underpaid ugly ol’ mule and a passion for a good story. And, when he puts those two together, others catch the "fever."
The first in his family to get hooked on mules was his oldest granddaughter, Marley Dawson.
"She liked to hear me tell stories about when I was growing up and usually there was a mule in the stories," Renfroe said. "Marley fell in love with mules just like I did. She started talking about them all the time and drawing pictures of them. I told her that one day I would get us a mule and a wagon and we’d ride it any time she wanted to."
||Not only do Renfroe’s mules pull a wagon loaded with happy kids, they also "load ’em up" on their backs for a bumpy ride across the pasture. Granddaughters Dannah Kate Dawson, left, and Kaylee Grace Copeland would rather ride the mules than swim in the pool, even on a hot summer afternoon.
About 10 years ago, Renfroe’s wife, Susan, and his friend, Joey Strother, manager of Pike Farmers Co-op, got together and planned a Christmas surprise for Renfroe. Jolly Ol’ St. Nick brought Renfroe what he had been wanting all of his life - a mule.
Imagine his surprise when, after all those years, he finally got his Christmas wish. And imagine the happiness on the face of his granddaughter when she saw that "pretty mule" in the barn.
A year or so later, Renfroe was twice blessed. "Joey had bred some horses to a big jack and had two baby mules," Renfroe said. "We brought them home and Marley and I broke the mules. I use them to do a little plowing in the garden but mostly I hook them to the wagon and let the children ride. We ride in parades in Brundidge - the Independence Day Parade and the Nutter Butter Parade at the Peanut Butter Festival in October. All the grandchildren enjoy riding in the parades and sometimes other children ride, too. People seem to like seeing the ol’ mules and wagon."
Renfroe also has a sled that the mules pull out through the pasture with children piled on, laughing and having the best of times.
"You don’t have to do a lot to make children happy," he said. "And ol’ mule, a wagon and a good story is about all you need."
And, a good story about an ol’ mule will entertain most grownup folks, too.
"I think everybody likes a good story," Renfroe said. "I go down to the Co-op every chance I get. I buy all my feed at the Co-op and I use that as an excuse to go. But, I go even if I don’t have a need."
Many days, Renfroe can be found hanging around the Pike Farmers Co-op. He’ll be listening to the stories that are being "strowed" around and, after a while, he’ll push back his cap and say, "Did y’all hear about the time…" and every ear will turn his way. "Well, one time, there was a farmer that had this ol’ mule…."
Jaine Treadwell is a freelance writer from Brundidge.