By David Anderson Jr.
Published September 29, 2008
But for thousands of area residents who came to celebrate the harvest season, and tens of thousands of visitors who came to show off their mules, memories of the 2008 Benson Mule Days celebration will last a lifetime.
For Larry Smith, the son of Benson Mule Days co-founder Nowell Smith, the festival still represents an opportunity for farmers to come together and celebrate their accomplishments. As the festival has grown over the years, families have come from all over the country to enjoy not only the equine events at Mule Days, but the general festival atmosphere created by the presence of so many people in such a small town. Despite the festival’s size and huge bill of activity, Mr. Smith, 70, says the focus on agriculture — cherishing Johnston County’s deep roots — has stayed strong.
“It’s probably slipped away some at times, but it’s come back,” he said. “The town has worked real hard to make it back into a family festival, and I think over the past few years they’ve done that.”
With all that Mule Days has to offer attendees in recent years, admiring the namesake animal is still Mr. Smith’s favorite pastime.
“Just seeing the mules out here, just looking at them, how neat they look and seeing them all, I just love it,” he said.Willis McLamb, another Mule Days co-founder, still enjoys the festival at 89 years old. He said not a lot has changed since the tradition began 59 years ago. Farmers still come just to show their livestock, but he attributes the massive crowds of recent years to the wide range of activities available.
“We give them a big time,” he said. “They can go to the rodeo, street dance and other activities we have here, and that’s what draws a crowd.”
One thing that certainly hasn’t changed over the years is the camaraderie and respect farmers show for one another. Thousands of people come to Mule Days to rekindle old friendships and connect with fellow equine enthusiasts.
“I’ve never met a bad person out like this,” Mike McKinney said. Mr. McKinney brought two mules, Deb and Ruth, and a massive wagon from Elizabethton, Tenn., to compete in Mule Days. Minutes before the competition began, he recruited the help of a total stranger — Calvin Oneal, a Mule Days regular from Elizabeth City — to help him show his animals.
“I was here by myself with this pair of fancy mules and I didn’t have no help, and Calvin gave me a helping hand,” Mr. McKinney said.
Mr. Oneal has been coming to Benson to celebrate Mule Days for nine years. He says meeting new people is his favorite part of the event.
“I’ve got some good people I’ve met, and this is the only time of year I get to see them,” he said.
The Main Event
Deborah Davis and Michele McLaughlin helped organized the mule competitions Friday. A few rain clouds and a Friday morning drizzle didn’t worry them at all.
“Mules don’t care if it’s raining or not,” Ms. Davis said.
“And neither do their owners,” Ms. McLaughlin added.
The Nowell Smith Arena was the place to be Friday afternoon, as the mule competitions took center stage. After threatening to wash out the weekend, rain clouds passed by just before noon. Fresh, warm sunlight smiled down on hundreds of people who came to enjoy the festivities.
Sally Good’un, a mule from Asheboro, was named Grand Champion Friday. Karen Reeder, Sally’s owner, has been coming to Mule Days for decades.
“I love mules and I love Mule Days,” Ms. Reeder said. “I always tell people ‘mules aren’t for every body. You need a sense of humor and a lot of patience.'”
Phil Stone Jr. of Sanford took the top honor for a team of mules. The Stone family has participated in Mule Days for years as well, representing generations of farming tradition. The Stones, who operate a successful tree removal business, still use mules to haul logs around their property.
“We mess with mules all the time,” Phil Stone Sr. said.
The elder Stone has been coming to Benson Mule Days for 39 years.
“We meet some good people from everywhere,” he said. “I’ve got some grandchildren, grandsons and I’m expecting them to start coming in here and doing this.”
One of his grandsons, Andy Stone Jr., took home an award for the oldest mule. Short Cake, a 32-year-old miniature mule, graciously let Andy, 7, lead her around the arena.
“She’s a good little mule,” Andy said.
As long as people have an interest in mules, crowds will continue flocking to Benson Mule Days. Larry Smith doesn’t expect that interest to fade away anytime soon.
“Some people like golf. Some people like fishing. Some people like mules,” he said.
Text and images copyright 2008 by The Record Publishing Company.
Used with permission.