When did tractors start replacing mules on Alabama farms?

Q: When did tractors start replacing mules on Alabama farms?

A: According to an article in the Encyclopedia of Alabama by George B. Ellenberg, author of “Mule South to Tractor South: Mules, Machines, and the Transformation of the Cotton South,” mules became the state’s primary workhorse by the late 19th century, until they were replaced by machines in the mid-20th century.

The article states that mules are the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. The donkey provided sturdiness and surefootedness, while the horse provided size and alertness.

“Both male and female offspring are produced, but both are sterile,” the article states.

Mules were classified primarily by their size – mine mules, cotton mules, sugar mules, farm mules, and train mules – with mine mules being the smallest and train mules being the largest.

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“Mining mules working in coal mines might weigh as little as 600 pounds, while draft mules, working the state’s heavy soils and hauling trees from forests, might tip the scales 1,800 pounds,” the article states.

The type or category of mule depended on the type of work they were generally doing.

“Cotton mules, for example, tended to be smaller because they often pulled plows on light soil and farmers did not want to feed an animal that was larger than they needed,” the article says.

Mules performed many jobs on farms, including pulling plows and carts. Ellenberg wrote that mules were favored over horses in the second half of the 19th century because they developed a reputation for hardiness and the ability to fend for themselves.

“These traits often led to a reputation for stubbornness because mules did not work beyond their physical limits, a trait that helped them survive when there was little or no incentive for anyone to care for them,” states in the article.

Many southern farmers reported owning and working on a mule for 20 years or more. “Furthermore, planters considered mules cheaper to feed and care for than horses because mules could often survive on inferior grain and hay,” the article reads.

Ellenberg wrote that a supply system first developed along established trade routes to bring the animals from mule-producing states like Tennessee and Kentucky to Alabama and other Deep South states, with mules traveling on foot accompanied by mule traders, who some Mules each bought from farmers along the trails.

“Later, the railroads transported large numbers of mules from mule-producing states to the Deep South for sale in groups to local mule traders,” the article reads.

Mules quickly disappeared from Alabama farms after World War II with improved technology for planting, raising, and harvesting cotton.

“Tractors, chemical herbicides and pesticides, and mechanical cotton pickers removed the last obstacles to mechanization,” the article says. “Only about 5,000 tractors were used on Alabama farms in 1930, but that number rose to almost 46,000 by 1950. In the 1960s, mules were viewed more as curiosities from an earlier era than as working animals.”

Although mules are no longer economically essential to farms and other industries in the state, they continue to be human-raised and used in vibrant historical settings, agricultural and cultural fairs, and for pleasure riding, the article said.

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