Saturday, January 14, 2017

Singleton laments the passing of the days of the mule-drawn wagon

George Buster Singleton
(For decades, local historian and paranormal investigator George “Buster” Singleton published a weekly newspaper column called “Somewhere in Time.” The column below, which was titled “Wagons drawn by mules gone from country roads” was originally published in the Jan. 1, 1976 edition of The Monroe Journal in Monroeville, Ala.)

Not too long ago, it was quite common to see a mule-drawn wagon moving along the roads of our county. The wagon ruts were to be seen in every sand bed and mud hole wherever a county road entered into the low-lying areas.

The wagon was the main means of transportation of the rural families who had to come to town to buy supplies and/or transport their crops to market at harvest time, when the corn was pulled and the cotton picked.

The mule-drawn wagon has almost vanished from the scene, giving away to the more modern methods of transportation, such as the pickup truck and the rubber-tired trailers that can be pulled at a fast pace to be unloaded. He pulls up in his air-conditioned truck or auto and quickly disconnects from his loaded trailer, then returns home.

This was not the case back in the days when you carried your cotton to the gin by mule wagon. The day would start around 3 a.m., the wagon having been loaded the evening before and everything made ready for the trip to the cotton gin.

The mules were hitched up to the wagon by lantern light, and the slow journey started.

As the trip progressed, the going grew harder as the larger sand beds in the road caused the already tiring mules to go more and more slowly. After each deep sand bed or step hill, you had to stop and let your team catch its breath before going on.

Braking method

Before descending the steep hills, you would stop at the top of the hill and fasten the lock chain to one of the rear wheels. This short piece of chain was secured to the wagon bed, and you would run the chain through the wheel, causing the wheel to slide on the ground.

This braking method kept the wagon from running down against the mules, which sometimes would cause them to run and increase chances of turning over the top-heavy wagon.

Upon reaching the cotton gin, your wagon had to wait in line until your turn came to pull under the gin shed and have your cotton pulled off your wagon by a huge suction pipe that all the kids were afraid of.

After a breathtaking tour of the cotton gin and after listening to the tall tales about how, if you were not careful, a small boy could be pulled right up into the gin machinery through the large suction pipe, it was time to start for home.

Not as pleasant

The return trip wasn’t nearly as pleasant as the one to the gin. The soft, fluffy cotton had cushioned all the bumps in the road, and now the empty wagon rattled and bumped, the steel-tired wheels hitting every rock and hole in the road.

To amuse himself, the small boy who was allowed to accompany his older brother to the cotton gin would hang from the rear of the wagon bed and ride the coupling pole.

The evening shadows would have long faded from the sky, giving way to the darkness that covered the countryside with its cloak of ebony, before the return trip home was completed. The same small boy was then lifted gently from the bed of cotton bagging, where he had sought protection from the cool night air, then carried upstairs to bed without knowing the day had ended.

Wagons to vanish

The mule-drawn wagons will soon be no more. They will have vanished from the country roads.

But the memories will forever live in the minds of the ones that were fortunate enough to have been a part of the passing scene.

(Singleton, the author of the 1991 book “Of Foxfire and Phantom Soldiers,” passed away at the age of 79 on July 19, 2007. A longtime resident of Monroeville, he was born on Dec. 14, 1927 in Marengo County, graduated from Sweet Water High School, served in the Korean War, lived for a time among Apache Indians, moved to Monroe County in June 1964 (some sources say 1961) and served as the administrator of the Monroeville National Guard unit from 1964 to 1987. For years, Singleton’s column “Somewhere in Time” appeared in The Monroe Journal, and he wrote a lengthy series of articles about Monroe County that appeared in Alabama Life magazine. Some of his earlier columns also appeared under the heading of “Monroe County History: Did You Know?” He is buried in Pineville Cemetery in Monroeville. The column above and all of Singleton’s other columns are available to the public through the microfilm records at the Monroe County Public Library in Monroeville. Singleton’s columns are presented here each week for research and scholarship purposes and as part of an effort to keep his work and memory alive.)

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