Tuesday, April 29, 2008

A Horse and Mule Cemetery

My friend and I picked our way over the ditch and through blackberry brambles, stepping cautiously over fallen tree trunks, and then finally onto what appeared to be an old road bed. All I could think was, “It’s warm enough for snakes and ticks.” But we were on a mission to find the mule cemetery my friend told me about months before I’d finished writing The Book of Mules: Selecting, Breeding, and Caring for Equine Hybrids (The Lyons Press to be released 2008)

We’d planned more than once to find this unusual cemetery but weather, illness, and work kept changing our plans. So, there will not be pictures of gravestones erected in honor of beloved work mules in my book. Even, so, after interviewing many retired farmers about working the land with the help of mules and horses, I was interested in seeing this proof of the value of the horse and mule to their owners before tractors came on the farm scene.

The location is just a short distance from a large apartment complex in Durham, North Carolina. Of course, until the later part of the twentieth century the land on which the apartment buildings stood was farmland. The four-lane highway we took to the site was once a dirt road. It’s all changed now.

We followed the obscure roadbed a few yards, and wondered if we’d understood the apartment manager’s directions. Then my friend caught the first glimpse of a tombstone. We went to the top of the small rise and there they were. Ten testaments to a man’s affection for the animals that helped him earn a living for his family for thirty-some years.

After we photographed each inscribed headstone, my friend asked if I’d like to meet the daughter of this man, Mr. F.H. Page, “who loved his animals so well” as he expressed on one of the monuments. Mrs. Ruth Harris is in her early eighties, and she remembers the all of horses and mules buried on that hill. She very graciously agreed to tell me about them.

Ms. Harris says Nell, the Arabian, was a buggy horse that was also a family pet. “She followed us to the fields like a dog.” Nell was even allowed a good wallow in the warm earth after it was plowed and planted, “and it was alright, because she was a pet and Daddy allowed it.”

Rose was a real working mule, and very gentle, Mrs. Harris remembers. Her oldest son, nicknamed Peppy, was especially fond of Rose and Mr. Page had written on her marker, “Pep’s Mule.” Also inscribed onto her gravestone were the words, “very good.” Mrs. Harris told us a story that showed just how good Rose was. Peppy was only about two years old when he wandered out to where Rose stood, and bite her on the leg. “Rose never moved until I got there,” she said. Rose lived to be thirty years old.

Mr. Page bought a taller monument for one horse. On it he had carved the words, “Best of All.” Dan was a bay, five-gaited saddle horse. He was used for work in the fields, but Dan had another talent. He was a racehorse, at least once a year. Mrs. Harris said her dad always raced Dan on the Fourth of July race that took place on Page Road. Yes, right there on what now is the four-lane highway I mentioned before, horses galloped full speed, helping their riders celebrate their independence. That was back when the highway was a dirt road that buggies navigated from the farm homes to town. Back when things were different. I think Mr. Page erected those monuments not only to the horses and mules that worked at his side so many years, but the ten granite stones also memorialize a time when life was harder, but perhaps a lot less hectic. I am glad my friend and I finally found the time to walk through the woods and see the “mule graveyard.”

Inscriptions on the Ten Gravestones of Horses and Mules Once Owned By Mr. Page

Prince – Trotting Horse, chestnut sorrel, white face. 1930-1945
Ted – Fast saddle horse, dark sorrel, white face. 1920-1945
Nell – Beautiful Arabian, fast driving mare, brilliant sorrel, white face, 3 white feet. 1920-1943
Star – Saddle and driving mare, chestnut, white face. 1904-1939
Dan – (taller than other stones) Best of All, 5 gaited saddle horse, bay, black mane (misspelled balck) 1910-1940. Erected by F.H. page, owner of all the animals he loved so well.
Bessie – Driving mare, brown, white face, 4 white feet. 1903-1937.
Kate- Steel gray mule, very intelligent. 1902-1930.
Lulu – Bay mule, very swift. 1902 age 28.
Maude – Brown mule. Very gentle. 1906-1939
Rose – Pep’s mule (Pep was Mr. Page’s grandson) Black mule, very good. 1916-1946.