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Of Mules and Men - A Historical Account of Logging on the Tantrough Branch

Updated: Mar 1


Clarence T. Workman and his mules

When I was about 12 years old, Daddy decided to sell the mature pines on what had been my Grandmother Hostedler's home place. We boys were saddened at the prospect since the woods with its tall pines, their sighing branches, and the forest floor deeply padded with their fragrant needles, was one of our favorite places to play. But, to Daddy, timber was a crop, and the mature trees would start to decline and eventually die. There was always the threat of budworms, bark beetles or some imminent disease.

Waiting their turn

The timberman, a "Mr. Short", I think, arrived one evening with his entourage of five mules. [There has been much discussion about which logger from Georgetown, Delaware, actually logged our pine forest tract along the south shore of the Tantrough Branch, since Clarence T. Workman and Mr. Short both logged, in the exact same manner at the same time period. Consequently, I have included an early photo of Clarence T. Workman, courtesy of C. Elliott Workman.]

The mules were unloaded from the trucks and took up residence in various stalls in Grandmother's old, vacant barn. Mr. Short worked out a deal with me to feed and water them by 7:00 AM, seven days a week, so that they would be ready to go to work when he arrived from Georgetown. For this service he wanted to pay me the magnificent sum of ten cents per day, but I held out for a quarter which he finally agreed to pay.

I still remember the names of some of the mules. My favorite

was Clayton, large and dark, then there was Molly, gray with one blind, opal eye, and James, who was very skittish and not to be trusted (he kicked me one day!), plus two others whose names I have forgotten. Early each morning, after I had finished feeding the mules and filled all the water buckets from the pitcher top pump, I rode my bike home (we lived on the neighboring farm) and hurriedly got ready to catch the school bus at 7:45. After school I quickly changed my clothes and hustle to the woods to watch the teams in action.

Old Clayton

The timber was being harvested as piling in lengths of 30, 40, and 50 feet. It takes a good sized straight pine to yield a 50 foot piling. There was no noisy, smelly chainsaw. The trees were felled using a two-man crosscut saw, that simply whispered as it cut deeper and deeper into the trunk until the tree finally fell with a huge thud and a shower of twigs, small branches, and needles. A totally heart thumping experience, too. The bark was stripped off right where the trees fell with a spade-like tool called a "spud". (If the bark is left on a pine log and it dries to a certain moisture content, the eggs of wood boring insects deposited into the bark and remaining dormant for years, hatch, bore into the timber and ruin it for sale. Therefore, pine lumber is always graded down if bark, referred to as wain, is Opal Eyed Molly present after sawing into finished stock). The limbs were chopped off with an axe and the resulting skinned log was dragged to the loading area by the mules. Months later, long

strips and tattered piles of bark still marked the spots where the trees had fallen.

Canthook, Two Man Saw (or Misery Whip), Oil Bottle, Axe, Hammer & Wedges

Saw Oiler Bottle using Pine Needles


Clarence T. Workman and his team of mules

The mules were divided into teams of two for dragging the logs. Each team, joined by a "double-tree" hitch, responded to various shouts, clucks, and whistles from Mr. Short, straining against their collars as they moved the logs. Amazingly, the teams never had reins. Mr. Short walked parallel at a distance of 25 to 50 feet, calling out instructions to enable the team to navigate between standing trees, piles of brush, and stumps until the log was deposited beside the big trailer at the edge of the forest. Cursing seemed to be an essential part of the lingo required for driving mules: Mr. Short knew more cuss words and expletives than I had ever heard before (which is saying something!). "GD's" and "SoB's", and "MF's" abounded, with copious references to the mules' questionable family trees, but Mr. Short never resorted to harsher measures than the whip of his tongue he so freely applied.

The skittish mule, James, was singly harnessed, and spent his work day at the log truck, a semi tractor-trailer affair which was parked just inside the forest edge. A large pole was secured with ropes to the base of a large oak and sloped outwards at a 45 degree angle. On the tip of this stiff boom hung a large, multi-sheaved block and tackle, the rope hanging straight down with a pair of log tongs to ground level. James was hitched to the business end of the tackle. His duty was to pull outward on the rope and lift the log in the tongs to load height. And again, there were no reins on James; he responded to the audible commands of Mr. Short standing on the logs on the truck. James first James pulled ahead, stopped, backed up a little, then ahead again, on command, until the log was situated perfectly on the load. When not lifting logs, he spent his time just standing, idly switching flies, twitching his ears, and stomping a foot. Where the loader mule had walked, out and back hundreds of times, a little dirt road, 4 feet wide and 100 feet long, was cut into the woods.

At the end of the work day all of the mules, chains jingling, walked the half mile back to the barn, with Mr. Short riding astride Clayton. The mules are long since departed, as are those former carefree days, but their memory lingers on. More recently while walking in that very same woods, I found a short length of trace chain. Instantly, I could see in my mind's eye those mules, hear the squeaking of the harness, and jingling of their chains. I consider myself so fortunate to have lived during such a transitional period in American agriculture and to have witnessed firsthand the sights, sounds, and color of those mules.


N.B. Using draft animals for logging greatly reduces the impact on the environment. Indeed, some forest managers insist on their use. The selectively felled trees can be removed with minimal disturbance to the remaining trees and woodland plants, they don’t leave huge scars, run over and crush saplings, use sustainable fuel and improve the soil. And they are quiet! ********************************************************************************************************************** The mule is a sterile hybrid between a male ass (Onager) and a female horse (Equus). Mules are smaller, more rugged, durable, and reportedly more intelligent than a horse. The difficulty training mules seems to be that the trainer needs to be smarter than the mule !

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Editor's Note: The picture below, taken sometime in the early 1930s, is of my grandpa, Samual Childers (right) and his brother Martin "Shorty" Childers, cutting firewood with a "misery whip" somewhere in southern Oregon. The tree looks to be a fallen Douglas fir . When I was a kid in the early '50s I remember that grandpa still had several of his misery whips, probably even this one, and that he and my dad still used them for cutting firewood. At that time chain saws were big, bulky and much too expensive for a average homeowner. Grandpa had a saw clamp setup outside and would keep his saws razor sharp.

- Steve Childers -




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