Volume 34, Number 3, Winter 1995


Mules at Silver Dollar City

by Pat Talburt


Editor’s note:In September1982, two University of Missouri professors animal scientist Melvin Bradley and photojournalist Duane Dailey interviewed Pat Talburt, Silver Dollar City, Stone County. The interview was part of a statewide project now titled The Mule Industry of Missouri Remembered. Eventually, 130 interviews were transcribed, published and made available to the public by the Missouri Mule Skinners Society and the University of Missouri Press, 1991. The project collected reminiscences about the breeding, rearing, training, showing, selling and recreation with mules. A copy of this collection is housed at the Missouri State Archives, Jefferson City.

Pat Talburt: My name’s Pat Talburt and I’m the director of merchandising here at Silver Dollar City. Been in charge of the outdoor crafts since 1976 when I arrived here.

As far as the Missouri mule, I don’t know . . . I really, myself, don’t know just a whole lot of history about the Missouri mule itself, other than it’s highly recognized as a Missouri-type animal and I believe that the true Missouri mule is part jack, of course, and bred to a Belgian workhorse. The traditional Missouri mule is a red mule, a big red mule. There are other mules in Tennessee, Kentucky and mules everywhere, but the Missouri mule traditionally was the bigger red workhorse-type mule. The big mules and the big horses have a personality that is . . . that makes it really good for us to work with on the park because they’re very docile. Seems like the bigger they are, the nicer they are or something like that. ‘Course they’re stronger too.

We have tried various animals on the park. Some thin’ that might be good for Silver Dollar City would be to have some oxen on the park. However, they’re too unpredictable to be in crowds. Their bathroom habits are terrible. So on like that.

A mule seems to be about twice as smart as a horse, to our way of thinking, anyway. They... We can potty-train a mule. Be driven’ a wagon around the park, the mule’s tail comes up and old Tom Ristead, the guy driven’, says "Ahhh, get that tail down." They put the tail down. They wait ‘til he takes ‘em off the park to go to the bathroom. A horse will just go anywhere at any time, while he’s walkin’, while he’s runnin’; doesn’t matter. There’s a... a mule is kind of mysterious, a mysterious-type animal. They seem smart to me.

Four or five years ago, I took. .. For two winters in a row, I took some mules home to my pasture for the winter, basically to save us some money, you know, in

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feed bills because I have a pasture and they could eat, except for when the snow’s on the ground, they could eat fescue. And I would ride the mules, you know, my whole family. This one mule, white mule, named Lulubelle, who’s presently gone the happy mule hunting ground or whatever, was a real favorite of my little girl. She though... well, she thought they were her mules anyway, and really went crazy when we had to give ‘em back to Silver Dollar City. But, they are. . . I may be wrong, but a mule just seems like they look at you with a little more intelligent look.

This one particular old mule, Kate, that I had over there, a great big... she wasn’t a red mule, but she was an enormous, you know, mule, like a big workhorse. When I would drive.. . As I was driven’ down the road, comin’ to my house goin’ around the corner of my property there, she always would just kinda give you a look like "so there you are, huh." And with her, I had some problems. She seemed to be... She was a little wiser mule than the other two and she would try to get any advantage she could on you. She seemed to sense nervousness in me a lot more than the other two mules. It took me. . . and this isn’t straight... straight tryin’ to catch mules... But I was totally inexperienced in mules or horses at this time.

So, some friends of mine come down from Springfield and we’re gonna ride the mules. And we couldn’t even touch one of’ em, you know, let alone ride one of ‘em. We couldn’t even catch ‘em. This friend of mine’s wife grew up on a farm and her brother was a good horseman and so she says, "Well, if my brother was here, he’d just go out and catch ‘em." We said, "Wow would he do it?" She says, "Just go catch ‘em. You know, if nothin’ else,just run at ’em and jump on their back. You know, get ‘em." And so we said well, if he can do it, we can do it.

We go out there and we caught Lulubelle and we caught Joan and ran after Kate for a half hour, forty-five minutes, finally got her cornered. And a lotta yell in’ whoa to her and got a rope around her neck, a 30-40 foot long rope, and thought we had her. I was leadin’ her over to put the saddle on her and she took off. And this rope was just burn in’ through my hands, you know, and so here I am, kinda skim’ across the pasture and gettin’ madder by the minute. And I watched a lot of western TV and so on, you know, when I was a little kid, and I saw this cedar tree comm’ up so I swung ‘way out and wrapped that thing around that cedar tree. Wrapped it and just run around and tied it real quick and when it hit that cedar tree, it jerked her real bad and jerked the rope up around her head and right across her eyebrows. And Clayton, the guy I was speakin’ about, he says one thing about a mule, — it’s a little different with a horse — but you can’t let a mule hardly ever get the upper hand ‘cause they won’t forget that they once got it. And they’ll continually try to win again. They don’t forget that.

So — maybe this shouldn’t be on the recording —but I just ran up to her and popped her right in the mouth and yelled at her. I don’t know much about horses and mules and I just got right up there and yelled, "Don’t you ever do that again!" And skin off my hands from the burn and all that. And from then on, she did what I wanted her to do, pretty much.

Melvin Bradley: Do you find these mules better here in these big crowds—safer and more biddable?

PT: Oh yeah, that’s right.

MB: Better toilet habits. I’d never thought of that.

PT: Well, I wish our old mule was here. He died last year. His name was John. He’d been here for 21 years. He’d been here ever since there was a Silver Dollar City. They thought he was 12 years old when they got him. Everything pointed to him being over 30 years old.

And he was a favorite of everybody’s. He was the rainmaker mule on the rainmaker show. Ran the rainmaker wagon. He’d be in the barn lot just walkin’ around and just about the time that they came to get him for the rainmaker show, he’d be standin’ right at the gate. He knew what time they were supposed to come. He would — out on the square —he would stand there and sleep and he would almost — he’d kinda wake up and start gettin’ frisky when it was time for another show. He had a little ole’ clock in his brain somewhere that told him when it was time to do rainmaker shows.

Clayton and I did a little experiment with him,just for fun because he was gettin’ so old we had to start

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givin’ him some days off, see. So we just let him loose over at the mule barn one day, just to see what would happen. He came walkin’ on the park, walked up the main street, and he walked up and he saw his rainmaker wagon standin’ there with another mule in front of it. He just stood there and looked at it, you know. And then he walked and got right behind the wagon and stood there and went to sleep.

And when the rainmaker wagon left, he moved up to right where he’d been standin’ for the past so many years, you know, just stood there. ‘Course our security department said we cannot allow you to have a mule walkin’ around loose on park. They said, "What if somebody’d get on that mule and kick him and drive him, you know, he’d be dangerous." But full speed was about one-half a mile an hour for John, so I don’t think there was any real danger.

I one time saw a little kid, real little kid, probably a year and a half, two years old, just walkin’. And you know, some people, some guests that, you know... This lady was a little bit. . . because she thought he was a stuffed mule. He was standin’ there with his eyes closed, you know, asleep, not moving. And her little boy was right under John, right under and pokin’ him in the stomach like this. And I said, "Lady! Get your kid out from under that mule!" And she said she thought he was stuffed. But John was the type of mule — and a lot of these big mules are — that you can pick your kid up to go pet ‘em and they can just jam their finger right up the mule’s nostril and the mule may take his head and push you away; but those big mules don’t bite, they don’t nip at kids.

Of course, we have to put a mule through a lot of tests like that before we can bring ‘em on park. If we’re buyin’ a mule, we get behind the mule and stick our legs between their back legs and kick back and forth and pull their tail and pinch their nostrils and poke at their ears and, you know, all kinds of stuff like that.

MB: Where do you get your mules?

PT: We buy a lot of’em at sale barns. Five years ago, we started this deal on our bigger mules. We bought two Belgian workhorses and we started breeding them to two different places, a place in Lamar, Mo., that had that 10-hand-high jack.

MB: Adams?

PT: Yeah. And then a place up north of Springfield. They have a big jack also. And I think we have 4 mules right now that we’ve bred right here. Little John was the first one, and he’s one of the biggest mules I’ve ever seen. He’s not as heavy as some mules are, but he’s only ... I guess he’s only 4 years old now.

His nose.., you need to go out and look at him.. his face, his head is so long it’s unbelievable. He can’t wear old John’s collar. He just cannot get it on. He’s too big.

And the second one, I believe, is Rufus. Real, real frisky mule. We were worried about him when he was little. But he’s gettin’ tamer now. ‘Course when the mule gets castrated, that makes a big change. I got a saying... I don’t know if I should say it...

MB: You.., would you have any animal here if it wasn’t for the mule? Could you get along with horses

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and oxen if you had to?

PT: We do not allow horses out on park, walking through the guests.

MB: Too unpredictable.

PT: Yeah. You can... if some kid was runnin’ by the side of a horse that was walkin’ through the park and they got one of their.., you know, a cap gun or a pop gun or just.., you know, with a sack or anything, horses... you know their side view, they might just jump over 3 or 4 feet, bein’ skittish. A workhorse would be better, but even our big workhorses, who are pretty tame, are... You can tell, just by people pettin’ ‘em, they’re not quite as tame as a mule is. A mule’s asset an awful good animal, really.

MB: About how many do you have here?

PT: Oh, let’s see. I’m not real sure of the exact number now because we use some mules and the entertainment division uses some mules; but I think it’s around 15 to 18.

We used to have a lot more when we ran... We used to run two stagecoaches and we were up around 22, 23 then. A lot of our mules now are just for atmosphere, you might say. We have two white mules that are really good mules. They’re not the real Missouri mule, but they’re very tame and they’re the ones that drive our delivery wagon around park and they go right through a crowd of 8,000 people with no problems. You couldn’t get one of’em to run over or step on somebody.

MB: Never step on anybody.

PT: Huh-uh. We’ve had one incident of... since I’ve been here. .. of a mule nipping at somebody and they nipped at a little kid’s hand and the kid was just doin’ all kinds of stuff to them. And it didn’t break the skin; it just kinda bruised his hand a little bit. I believe that was a horse that did that, though. I don’t believe it was a mule.

We’ve got two guys that are really good, other than Clayton. Clayton’s the boss of outdoor crafts. Gary Clarkson can just practically talk to the mules. He can get on... He takes.. . He uses a horse to do this, but ... We got a fox trotter that he likes and he will bring ten mules over from the mule barn to his farrier shed area, you know, behind this horse and that’s a pretty hard deal to do, get 10 animals with reins and haul ‘em all over.

MB: Does he tie ‘em head to tail or just...?

PT: I can’t remember how he does it. Seems like he just probably ties some reins to other reins, something like that. Gary can. . . Gary never hardly raises his voice at an animal. They just do what he says. They better. . . They know they better do what he says, though. But I’ve never really seen him be mean to one.

When I first started learning something about mules, I thought it was terrible to be mean to ‘em at any time. Then I learned that one time really does ‘em a lotta good. Because if you really get on ‘em, really get on’em when they don’t do what they’re supposed to do when.., one time.., they’ll remember it and you may not have to cross that bridge again. But if you let ‘em get away with anything, then you’re in trouble. So nip it in the bud.

MB: So you have to outsmart the mule basically.

PT: That’s right. Well, you just have to let ‘em know who’s boss. ‘Cause if they think they’re boss, in any way, shape, or form, they are boss ‘cause you know you can’t really control something that big. You just gotta make them think you can.

MB: What is the attitude of the guests to these mules? Are they as unduly toward the mules as they would be a horse?

PT: Oh yeah. Well, we have so many people from bigger cities comin’ down here. A lot of’em don’t know that it’s not a horse.

MB: I see.

PT: You know, we tell ‘em now this is a mule and so on. These little kids’ll say, "Look at those horses." Some

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of their parents know, of course, that they’re not horses but some of’em don’t. Oh I would say that 80 percent of the public don’t know that a mule can’t reproduce. You know, they’re hybrid ‘cause they’ll say, "Is this this one’s father?" They just don’t know that. And some of ‘em don’t believe you. You tell ‘em and they still won’t believe you.

MB: Now you talk about deliveries of these mules amongst all these people. Is this.. . You deliver with mules because it’s safer than tractors going through the people or. .

PT: Well, we don’t have any tractors in the 1880s. We’ve had electric and gas carts for quite a few years here and we’re gonna get rid of ‘em next year.

MB: Oh really?

PT: Yeah. And have another wagon, probably, delivery wagon from the warehouses and so on. And we’ll have electric and gas carts before and after we open and close and do as much delivering as possible; but we can’t do it all.

So we have . . . Our mule skinner drives around, delivering, say, candy from one candy shop to another; bringing some merchandise hark and there, taking some.., somebody buys a rolltop desk or something big like that, we have taken over to the security office over there close to the highway where they can pick it up.

And we have awfully narrow streets and the mules have to be able to... you know, back up and they have to really do a good job of pullin’ that wagon. We’ve got some good old boys that know a lot about mules to drive ‘em too.

MB: Our time’s about up and he’s busy. Do you have some questions, Duane?

Duane Dailey: What’s your background?

PT: My background? I grew up in rural Missouri, played football at Aurora, a rural high school and went to SMS... college at SMS. I played football there and then I was a rookie at Kansas City for 6 weeks. Got my-knee hurt real bad. I always thought I was gonna play

pro football.

I didn’t know what else I was gonna do and then I had to have a job, see, so I noticed the new J. C. Penney store goin’ up in the Springfield mall. Went out and applied for a job. Got a job at J. C. Penney’s, merchandise manager. Ended up really liken’ it. It wasn’t anything at all like what I always thought I was gonna do.

And I was with Penney’s for seven years and in 1976, I came to Silver Dollar City as a merchandise manager. Drastically different type of job from, I guess you’d say from the piece goods department, to in charge of some mules is a pretty big step. And all the different crafts, you know. You don’t have any New York buying office to tell you what the best stuff to buy in the whole country is. You have to go out and find it yourself and find somebody to make some of it and try to help the craftsmen figure out what they oughta make and where to get the raw materials. It’s a lot different. I love it. It’s a lot more fun than, I would say, any regular merchandising job. But with that territory comes a lot of hard work too.

Let me tell you a story. This was a good one. This was that winter that I had the three mules at my house. I was havin’ a meeting, a very important meeting with my boss, about a 2-3 hour meeting. Got a call; they had to break into the meeting, you know, with the call. It was important. And my boss answers the phone and he goes kinda like this and he says, "Talburt, Esther wanted me to tell you that the mules are out." I said, "Okay. Let’s go on with the meeting."

So a half hour later the phone rings again and she says, "The mules are out and they’re headed ‘way down the road." She couldn’t catch ‘em. I said, "Okay, I’ll have to leave right after this meeting."

So a little bit later, she’s real excited. She calls back and she says, "The mules are out and they’re all the way past the pig farm." That was 4 miles away. And I told Fredman, my boss, I said, "Fredman, if somebody’d told me 3 years ago, while I was work in’ at J. C. Penny’s, that my wife would ever call me and tell me that the mules were all the way past the pig farm, I would’ve called ‘em a liar."

It was a pretty big change in my whole life, you know, where I lived, the type of things I like to do and so on. But for the better. I like this better than big city

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living and all that.

DD: What kind of things’ll be going on this afternoon? To get pictures of with the mules?

PT: You almost need to get with Clayton. Here is one thing that we’re gonna remedy next year, but Tom is the mule skinner, drives around the city; but he’s only here 5 days a week. He’s off today. We’re gonna get another driver for those 2 days next year. And really, all that has ever been for is expense-saving.

And Gary is a farrier. Gary Clarkson is a really good farrier. He’s been to farrier school in Oklahoma City and he’s a good entertainment person too. And we haven’t replaced him on his day off, but they’re both here, you know, when one’s off, the other one’s here. But I’m not sure if today is Tom’s day off or not. Friday is our slowest day of the week, so there’s a good possibility Tom might not be here. But you could take a picture of the rainmaker mule, you know, and I’m pretty sure pictures of the mules at Gary’s place; I’m pretty sure he’s here today. And if not, you can go over to the mule barn and take pictures of ‘em.

DD: Probably like to do that.

PT: And we have a little colt, so high, that’s a Belgian colt. We had a... One of our Belgian mares will take a mule and the other one will not stick.

MB: Won’t settle to a jack.

PT: No. I mean, can mount and the durned thing seems like it’s gonna go okay and she takes off. Just won’t do it. And go right over to a Belgian stallion and everything’s okay. She’s just picky. She doesn’t like a mule. I mean doesn’t like a jack, yeah. So we have... That’s fine with us because she always throws every time she throws a female colt and so that’s more female Belgians to have mules, you know. So it works out pretty good.

I personally really love those big . . . both the Belgian horses and the big mules. They’re... Well, it was kinda my pet deal to get this thing started a few years ago, so some time in the future we’d have more great big red mules than anybody around and hopefully maybe win the State Fair Missouri mule contest some year.

MB: Think you may show ‘em? You may show mules?

PT: We might. I don’t really know. It’s not ....... It’s not even being thought about right now. I used to think about doin’ that, but... kinda got off on other things, you know.

MB: How would the mule booth go here?

PT: Mule booth? To sell mules or....?

MB: Educational ... evolutionary history of the mule or something.

PT: Might go pretty good. I’d think a good place for it would be the farrier area.

MB: We’ll think about that when we get some time. We’ll see you when you’ve got a little more time.

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