CHARLESTON, S.C. — American photographer Walker Evans is remembered, in part, for his iconic Depression photographs of three poor, tenant farming families in Alabama in 1936. Published as part of the 1941 book, “Let us now Praise Famous Men,” Evans piercing photographs portrayed barefoot children, their worn mothers and their tired, sunburned farmers with pained, pained eyes.
But two photographs in Evans’ series were different. They included mules. [See some of his photographs by clicking on this link.]
“Mules did everything,” remembered retired Army Corps of Engineers Gen. Carroll LeTellier of Charleston during Saturday breakfast at the Marina Variety Store. Mules pulled plows. Mules graded roads and plowed snow. Mules pulled carts from farm to town. Mules filled the countryside during the depression. In short, mules ruled.
These days, mules are pretty hard to find. About the only place you can see them with some regularity around here is in downtown Charleston when you spy them pulling tour wagons packed with often overweight tourists.
Back in 1930, there were about 5.4 million mules in the United States, according to Census data. More than half – 2,807,082 mules – were found in 11 states of the South. Today, the number of mules and donkeys nationally (the Census Bureau counts them together these days) is about 5 percent of what it once was – 283,806 animals.
In South Carolina, it’s worse. Mules and donkeys number 1,620 for the whole state, less than one percent of the 188,895 mules in the Palmetto State in 1930.
So what happened? Mechanization and World War II.
“When the army started to get tanks, mules pretty much went by the wayside” because they weren’t needed to pull artillery and do other work that could be done by machines, said Leah Patton, registrar of the American Donkey and Mule Society in Lewisville, Texas.
Farmers started plowing with tractors. Farm families started traveling by car or truck. Because mules, a cross between a horse and donkey, are sterile and can’t breed, the species’ numbers dropped dramatically.
Patton’s society has more than 70,000 donkeys and mules registered in an attempt to keep alive the interest in the animals. Most people, she noted, don’t register mules because they are only around for their lifetimes.
But mules are still revered in some corners where people use them for more recreational purposes – showing them and riding them. And you can still find them hard at work in developing countries where people live off the land and don’t have enough money for tractors.