American Field
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A Mule Trade Got Even

By Tom Word | Apr 23, 2019

Triuth is often stranger than fiction. This story is absolutely true, according to one participant, Richard Spain, and a witness with no motive to tell it false, The Honorable Elmon T. Gray, friend of both participants.

Elmon was a long-serving Virginia State Senator, leader of a family timber company that successfully transitioned to apartments, and perhaps best remembered as a philanthropist.

It happened right after World War Two.

Richard had just returned to his native Sussex County from military service and was searching for a career. As a start, he bought a small peanut farm to work. It had no farmhouse and Richard, being single and frugal, made arrangements to board nearby with an old friend, Clarence Edwards, who was a mule dealer.

In those days the transition from mules to tractors was well underway, but mules were still in common use in Southside Virginia peanut farming. Shortly after moving in with Clarence, Richard decided to acquire a mule to work his peanut and corn crops. Clarence took him to his mule yard where he kept his inventory. He had about twenty head on hand in anticipation of coming spring demand.

Richard looked them over and asked about a fine looking young specimen. Clarence pronounced him sound and well broke to harness. “Got any faults?” Richard asked.

“None I know of,” Clarence answered with the typical dealer’s hedge.

Richard bought the mule and moved it to his little farm near Clarence’s home. Richard hired out the planting of his small acreages of peanuts and corn that first year but planned to cultivate them with his new mule. He bought a one-mule cultivator.

The road from Clarence’s house to Waverly passed by Richard’s peanut and corn fields.

Clarence and Richard had settled into a regular evening routine. When Clarence got home from his mule dealing and Richard from his farming, Mrs. Edwards had supper waiting. That finished, the men sat by the radio for the evening news, then moved to seats at a card table where two setback hands were quickly dealt. The game continued until one of the two suggested they go to bed. The score was then tallied and carried forward for an end-of-week settling up of bets.

Richard’s crops were planted and time came for a first tilling. Richard announced at breakfast he would till with his new mule today and left. Clarence delayed his usual departure time a bit in hopes of driving by to see Richard working the mule with the cultivator.

Unbeknownst to Clarence, Richard had for some time been trying out his mule on other rented crop land nearby but not visible from a road. There Richard had discovered the mule was a confirmed balker. Somewhere between ten and thirty minutes into a pulling job of any sort the mule would balk, and no amount of sticks or carrots would move it. Only removal of its harness could coax it to go forward or backward.

Richard did not confront Clarence. Instead he secretly went in search of a match for the balker. He found it from another dealer in eastern North Carolina, and after first confirming by trial that it was not a balker, he bought it and had it shipped to his off-road rented farm. Then he moved the balker to a barn on that farm and moved the sound mule to his farm by the road to Clarence’s house.

Clarence fully expected to watch Richard suffer embarrassment from the balking mule the morning he stayed home to see the first cultivating. But low and behold, he saw the mule make round after round with the cultivator, showing no hint of balking.

Meanwhile Richard kept the balker well fed at the off-road rented farm.

The nightly routine of supper, radio news and setback continued at the Edwards abode. Summer passed into fall and fall into winter. Then, during setback, Clarence got a call from a prominent physician who was also a peanut farmer and a regular mule customer of Clarence’s. Richard could hear one side of the conversation from which he inferred that the doctor was in the midst of threshing peanuts (in those days peanuts were dug and shocked for later threshing). A mule he had bought from Clarence had died suddenly. He desperately needed a replacement to finish his threshing.

Clarence explained his mule inventory was completely depleted (like all dealers he did not want to incur the cost or trouble of wintering mules). He was about to tell the doctor he could not help him when he remembered the mule he had sold Richard which Richard had miraculously rehabilitated. He covered the mouthpiece and whispered to Richard, “Still got that mule?” Richard nodded. “Sell him?” Clarence asked. Again Richard nodded, and wrote on an empty page of the tally notebook a price $100 higher than he had paid Clarence. Then he scribbled, “Little better mule than when I bought him.”

Clarence priced the mule to the doctor $25 higher and after protest the doctor accepted, conditioned on Clarence delivering the mule to the doctor’s farm next morning. Early next morning Richard delivered the balker to Clarence which he hauled to the doctor’s farm.

That night supper was followed by radio news at the Edwards home. The news was interrupted by a phone call which Mrs. Edwards who was washing dishes answered in the kitchen. It was the doctor, who demanded to speak to Clarence. This was what Richard had been planning for since the day he discovered his new mule was a balker.

Again Richard could hear only Clarence’s side of the conversation, but from that he quickly inferred without doubt what had happened. The mule had, true to its history, balked at a crucial moment in the doctor’s threshing operation, and he was demanding rescission of the mule purchase. The conversation ended with Clarence saying, “I’ll be up to get him in the morning.” There was no setback game that night.

Richard went on to be a very successful farmer, timber land investor and sawmill operator, selling out his sawmill operation to a public company in a tax-free deal before retiring. This true story is a great illustration of Richard’s keen intellect and legendary trading skills.

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