Monday, October 15, 2007

Mule Days with Tim and Alice Mills

It’s 5pm on Saturday October 13th and I just got home from a lovely day with Tim and Alice Mills. I had called to schedule a time to interview them and they told me they were going to Mule Days in the town of Washington on Saturday morning and invited me to attend. It seemed like a good way to spend the day.

We met at their house at 9:30 that morning and had to wait a few minutes for their daughter Rebekah and son-in-law Brian and granddaughter Emma to get there. They had stopped at Burger King on the way over.

Tim was dressed in his characteristic coveralls and a plaid shirt. Before we stepped out Alice told Tim he needed to put his hearing aids in. Tim has a hard time hearing even with his hearing aids. We piled in Alice’s white Cadillac, which is the first authentic farmer Cadillac I’ve encountered, and Bryan and Rebekah followed behind in their Chevrolet Avalanche.

Washington is in Wilkes County so we drove through Winterville on our way over to 72 then took 72 through Crawford and Lexington and on for another 24 miles or so. On the drive over we talked a lot about the drought and how it had affected things. Tim and Alice have a 140 foot well that they water from, only the ground has shifted and lodge a solid rock into the shaft at about 40 feet. There’s still water at 40 feet but Tim talked about his idea to fire a rifle down the shaft to try and break up that rock. Their loyal and somewhat slow farm hand Paul is super excited about this idea.

Tim, Alice and Paul spent yesterday afternoon fishing up at the Jubilee Lakes and didn’t have any luck. I told them how all the refugees fish everything they can out of the lake and put the whole fish in the freezer, then take the fish with them when they leave for Atlanta. Tim mentioned he wanted to catch a turtle when he realized all the fish were pretty much gone. This got us talking about turtle stew which I’ve never had. I mentioned that it seemed they would be tough. The trick to making good turtle according to Tim is to feed them corn meal for about 2-3 weeks before killing them to clean them out of all the weird things they like to eat.

This got us talking about feeding corn, and how I’d noticed that the supermarkets were advertising “All grain-fed” beef like that was a good thing or something. This conversation was interesting as Tim’s familiarity with the Bible had led him to believe that “fattening” the calf was a biblical instruction from God, that there was nothing wrong with that. We talked about how ruminant stomachs respond to grain and the problems with strains of e-coli that can now be passed from a cow to a human due to the acidic stomach of a cow from eating grain.

The Mule Day was a popular event with cars lined up at the entrance. There was a show ring and a mule drawn plough demo on one side and food and vendors on the other. The event was staged at the Callaway House historic preservation center, a great little locale with a beautiful, stately plantation style home with pillars and big front porch and one of the tallest, thickest southern magnolias I’ve ever seen. It was probably four feet across. They had reconstructed an 1889 one room schoolhouse as well. There was a sorghum mill and they were cooking up the sorghum syrup. This was neat to watch. There was brick fireplace, built of two long walls on top of which they sat a long iron flume. The sorghum syrup was moved from one section of the flume to the other depending on how long it had been cooking. As it was cooking a bright green film of chloroplast coagulated on the surface and was skimmed off. At the farthest end the syrup began to simmer and gain its characteristic dark color.

One of the things I enjoy the most from these type events it the opportunity to learn a few new terms. Of course, sometimes I have to relearn some old terms. The purpose of the event was to celebrate the mule and a mule simply put is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. It’s an F1 hyrbrid so to speak, and usually unable to reproduce. Before we left the house, Tim had explained that one of the advantages of the mule is that they will eat of lot of things that a horse will turn their nose up at. They seem to be hardier in that regard and not as prone to problems such as foundering. There are all types of mules, and as they moved about the show ring the judge explained a little about the cotton mule which was narrower and able to do delicate field work.

There were wagon rides, and tons of food. We walked over for lunch. I had a rib plate and enjoyed gnawing on the bones under the shade of a pine, wiping my face with white bread, interspersed with bites of beans and potato salad. Tim generously offered a delicious brownie with giant chunks of chocolate embedded. I also picked up a couple of three dollar pieces of pottery for Christmas presents.

On the way home I learned a little more about Tim and Alice’s history. They talked about their rodeo days, how every weekend for about 2-3 years they would travel to a rodeo where Tim would often ride the bulls.

They had moved to Athens about 25 or 30 years ago coming from North Carolina where they both had family. Tim got a job on a feedlot owned by a man named Miller, and as part of the deal he provided them with a free place to live. It wasn’t much to look at they said, but they arrived in June and enjoyed fixing it up, adding carpets to cover nearly rotten floorboards and building kitchen shelves. Rebekah was five years old at the time.

When I first asked where they had lived when they arrived in Athens, Alice answered, “The Loveshack.” Anyone who has been in Athens for very long knows that this was where the band the B-52’s lived and wrote many of their early songs, and eventually memorialized the shack with one of their most popular songs. Alice said that the band actually came by one day wanting to visit their old stomping grounds and she and Rebekah got to spend the day with them.

Tim was working on a piece of equipment inside the silage silo and got silage sickness, which can affect you if you breathe the fumes coming up out of the fermenting silage. The gas produced is nitrogen dioxide and kills people every year during the process of filling and maintaining silos. Tim went to the doctor and was told he had two choices. He could take one week of bed rest or he could go the hospital. Well the Mills had no health insurance, so bed rest seemed the way to go. Tim’s boss, Mr. Miller was a hard man and told him he could have the afternoon off but he expected him to be back the next day. Tim said that was not going to work. They spoke the next day and Mr. Miller told him to be back that day. No matter how many times Tim tried to explain to him how serious this was, they had reached an impasse. Tim did carpentry jobs for several months and the family moved into the trailer of a man and his daughter about Rebekah’s age. It worked for a short time but Tim and Alice knew they needed something of their own. They sold the house they had built in North Carolina and bought the little yellow house on Harve Mathis road.

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