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Mules in the Arts

Donna Campbell Smith is an author, freelance writer, and photographer. She has an AAS degree in equine tech and is a certified instructor.

Nicolaes Pietersz. Berchem - Muleteer by a Ford

public domain

public domain

Mules in the Arts

Mules with their expressive eyes and long ears have been models for artists and photographers around the world. The painting of Columbus riding a white mule by A. G. Heaton is one example. Mules often show up in editorial cartoons and modern works of art. Their reputation for stubbornness may explain their popularity in political cartoons. The popular Snuffy Smith Sunday comic drawn by John Rose, includes Snuffy’s mule, Aunt Sukey in several strips. Mules have starred in films, been the subject of literature and song. You don’t have to think hard to remember some very famous mules.

Francis the Talking Mule is probably America’s most famous mule. Francis starred in seven movies during the early 1950s. The Francis character was an old army mule whose sidekick was a young soldier named Peter Stirling, played by Donald O’Connor. Francis got Peter out of trouble by talking good “mule sense” to him and only him. This led to hilarious consequences when Peter tried to let other’s know about Francis’ unique talent.

Francis real name was Molly, because “he” was a “she.” Trainer, Les Hilton, used a thread fed into Molly’s mouth to get her to “talk.” Molly worked her lips and mouth trying to spit out the thread, and the words were dubbed in to make it appear as though Francis was talking to Peter.

Francis was also the title character in a comic strip during the later 50s. Today the old movies have been released on video and DVD.

Another famous mule, whose name is often forgotten, is Ruth. Festus, played by Ken Curtis, rode Ruth into Dodge City in the long running television series, Gunsmoke. Curtis replaced Dennis Weaver who played deputy sheriff, Chester Goode. Anyone who watched the series can remember Festus fussing and grumbling at “Ole Ruth,” who was shown to possess the stereotypical trait of mule stubbornness. But, there was no mistaking the affection that they felt for each other.

A mule named Gus starred in a Disney movie by that same name in 1976. Gus played a football team’s mascot that got promoted to team member because of his kicking ability, bringing the losing team to victory.

One of the most famous real mascot mules was called Old Coaly. Coaly moved from Kentucky to Pennsylvania in 1857 as a two-year-old. He was brought to work on the campus of Pennsylvania State University by his owner’s son, Andy Lytle. Coaly worked hauling limestone to build “Old Main.” After the building was finished Coaly was purchased for $190 and continued to work on campus and surrounding farms. He was loved by the staff and students and became an unofficial mascot. After he died in 1893 his skeletal remains were preserved and are still on display at Penn State.

Francis Joins the WACS

Francis the mule movies popular in the 50s

Mules in Song and Literature

The mule’s qualities and flaws have also been depicted in song. Jimmy Rogers wrote the “Mule Skinner’s Blues” in 1930. The ballad tells of a poor muleskinner who is asking the captain for a job. “I Had a Mule” is a folk song about an aggravating, kicking mule, and “Mule Train” was a popular country/western song.

Mules have been the inspiration of many folk tales. “Getting the Mule’s Attention” is an old favorite which is based on the mules reputation for stubbornness. “The Mule Egg” pokes fun at a city slicker who comes to Kansas to be a farmer. A neighbor convinces him the best way to get a mule is to hatch it from a mule egg. The neighbor gives the novice farmer a coconut, telling him it is a mule egg and he must sit on it night and day for three weeks to hatch it. The farmer’s family and he take turns sitting on the egg, and finally decide it is a dud. They throw it into the bushes with disgust. Out jumps a long-eared Jackrabbit. The farmer tries to catch the “baby mule” but returns home empty-handed, the rabbit being to fast for him. The farmer’s family runs out to see if he caught the baby mule. The farmer says, “No. And it’s just as well cause I don’t want to plow that fast anyway!”

© 2019 Donna Campbell Smith