Mule Skinning (An Historical Primer)

Many trades and professions are long forgotten and lost in time.

In days gone by, people were by nature and habit practical and a person’s  trade or profession was often obvious just by its name alone!

If you tanned hides for a living you were a tanner.

If you drove a team of horses you were a teamster.

It wasn’t always obvious though; if you drove a team of mules you were not only a “teamster,” but you were also a specialist!   Your title was “Mule Skinner!”

Anything but obvious!  But, for many years in the early days of the west, that’s how it was.  Teamsters and their counterparts were the daring pioneers that would drive a team of animals overland to a host of destinations and businesses.  They hauled wagon loads of goods from point to point and while the meaning of the name, “teamster,” may have changed in modern times, these rugged individuals are still a vivid part of the landscape that paints the history of our country and the American west.  Teamsters were truckers, horse drivers and ox handlers, but if you needed someone with grit and determination and imagination AND Mules! ; you needed a “mule skinner.”

Mule Skinners were definitely tough minded and inventive individuals.  Due, in no small part, to the animals they worked with.  Mules were then, as now, noted for their single minded stubborn behavior.  A ‘stopped’ mule was most difficult to restart and mule skinners were always looking for sure fire ways of motivating a particularly stubborn mule to move.  Usually a balky mule was talked to soothingly, then pleaded with and finally, threatened.  The method of last resort involved the use of hot, flat rocks!

Like a lot of, shall we say “technology,”  the ‘hot, flat rock’ method evolved from trial and error testing.  The beginnings of this technique involved building a small fire directly under the intractable animal.  The first attempts proved to be unfortunate, but none-the-less valuable lessons.  We should remember that mules were stubborn, not stupid and as the mule would feel the heat from the fire and its implied danger, it would simply move; usually just far enough to pull the fully loaded wagon directly over the fire, causing it to burn to the ground.

Having done this, the teamster in question was usually overlooked for his next promotion.

Employers, citing escalating fire insurance costs (not to mention, disgruntled customers), banned the use of open fire within 10 feet of mule and wagon.  Once again, however, trial and error proved to be the evolutionary model for solving this dilemma.  The next technique tried, in fact, proved to be a major step in the right direction.

Some teamsters, noting the unsuccessful attempts of their brethren, decided to use a large, flat rock, heated in fire to motivate their animals.  As these inventive craftsmen soon found out, this new technique, while largely successful, required no small degree of quickness and agility to apply correctly.  Once the rock was heated sufficiently (not so hot as to burn, but not too cold either), the teamster would calmly (but quickly) approach the mule from behind with rock in hand.  Gently, he would lift the mule’s tail and place the heated rock directly under the base of the tail and over one of the mule’s more sensitive areas.  The mule would sense the danger and would clamp his tail tightly to prevent any further foul play; thus, locking the heated rock firmly in place.

It was at the moment that the teamster attempting this maneuver discovered the need for quickness and agility.  Several experimenters discovered that they weren’t able to run the entire distance between Tehachapi and Barstow, California with their hand caught in such close proximity to an embarrassing part of the animal’s anatomy.  Explanations were quite difficult given the added problem of having most of their clothing ripped off or torn during the journey.

Those quick enough to remove their hand and avoid being trapped, but not agile enough to jump into the already moving wagon, soon realized that a mule could, indeed, pull a fully loaded wagon and still outrun a man.  As a result, several wagons arrived at their destinations unattended.

Those drivers both quick and agile enough also discovered two more subtle considerations when using this technique.  One involved the temperature of the rock.  If the rock was too cold, the animal would sometimes suddenly lose motivation some distance short of the destination.  If the rock was too hot, many drivers found it difficult to explain why they had skipped one or more stops on their route.

The second consideration involved the physical condition of the mule itself.  If a mule had ingested certain grain mixtures known to promote intestinal gases, it soon became clear that such an animal wasn’t suitable for the ‘hot, flat rock’ technique.  This fact became evident after several drivers were knocked unconscious after being struck in the head by flat rocks traveling at high velocities.

It became clear to the drivers that the “flat rock” method was A) only to be used in extreme emergencies and B) never sit directly behind the mule to which the technique had been applied!

“Mule Skinning” a name and trade gone forever.  Depending on your point of view it is either good or bad that certain trades (and their colorful practices) have fallen from common use, but I believe that the memory and skills of our ancestors should be preserved. During this same period companies like Kenworth introduced a new product to the trucking industry and ultimately, ‘mule skinning’ became a trade and American lexicon lost in time to advances in modern machinery.  Lost, yes, but not forgotten!

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