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By David Knopf, News Editor
People unfamiliar with Missouri agricultural history may have little idea how significant a role mules played in the state’s survival and development.
A little trip to Lathrop and Jim Plowman’s barber shop at 706 Oak St. will cure all that.
Plowman, president of the town’s Antique Car and Tractor Club, organizes an annual Lathrop Mule Show the first Saturday of August. The show has drawn mule, donkey and burro enthusiasts and their animals from all over, including Ray County and Excelsior Springs, in its 21-year history.
It was quite by accident when Plowman, who’s lived and cut hair in Lathrop since 1967, saw his first mule. He’d owned horses and was in Colorado when he did a little exploring.
“I went into the stable and they had this mule that they used for trail rides and all,” said Plowman, who learned that the mule has a reputation for sure-footedness on trail, pack and hunting rides. “That’s why they use them at the Grand Canyon, because they’re more sure-footed than a horse. They won’t flounder like a horse will.
“They got an easier ride than a horse and they use them a lot for pack rides and for hunting elk and moose in Colorado.”
Living in Lathrop, it’s hard not to know something about mules. Even those with little interest in history may know that the animal is the local high school mascot (as it is in Warrensburg at the University of Central Missouri).
There’s even a Mule Barn Road in town, which is where a Plowman acquaintance lives and, appropriately, keeps mules.
And in Lathrop it’s hard not to at least wonder about the town’s long relationship with the animal that’s a product of breeding a donkey with a horse.
The city government in this town of just over 2,000 people refers to Lathrop as “The Former Mule Capitol of the World.”
There’s good reason why. In 1891, businessmen J.D. Guyton and W.R. Harrington were attracted to Lathrop by its good rail connections.
The men were cousins, both with a knack for business. They built The Guyton and Harrington Mule Company, an empire that “At its prime … boasted an enormous physical plant of barns, corrals, buildings and thousands of acres of pasture at the Lathrop headquarters.”
That description comes from the foreward to the 1984 edition of “Photo Records of the Guyton & Harrington Mule Company Properties,” a book that many believe was first produced by the company as a sales tool.
To put the size of the operation in perspective, consider that 500 buyers were needed just to keep the flow of animals into and out of Lathrop moving smoothly.
Guyton & Harrington also had facilities in Kansas City, East St. Louis and Port Chalmette, La., but Lathrop was always at the heart of the mule empire.
Three railroads ran special trains to haul the animals out of town to distribution points, both domestically and overseas.
The company supplied mules to the British Army during the Boer War in South Africa in 1901-02, but its most significant contract came when the British War Office hired the firm to supply mules and horses during World War I.
In his foreward to the 1984 “Photo Records” volume, editor Howard W. Marshall notes that Guyton & Harrington supplied the English with 350,000 animals in all during the First World War.
“Their mules gave especially important service in the extended trench campaigns of the British and American forces in Europe in World War I,” said Marshall, who directed the Missouri Cultural Heritage Center when the book was published. “The war mule’s well-deserved reputation was fixed in the memories of veterans.”
The animals’ reputation as a sure-footed – if slightly stubborn – work animal would be seconded by Missouri Farmers, who relied on mules, as well as horses, for many years to plow their fields and do other work.
“Mules and horses were always in the same era, but I was always told that the mule was a poor man’s horse,” said Plowman, the Lathrop barber and mule enthusiast.
Of course, the roles of both animals changed with the growing popularity of tractors.
“They started having tractors in around 1910 or 1911, and then by the 1920s you had more tractors and by the late 1920s they were probably using more tractors than horses or mules,” Plowman said.
The last teams used to pull a plow probably disappeared in the early 1940s.
Not only did the mule help rural Missourians survive, it forged itself as a key figure in the state’s first 100-plus years of history.
The stubborn – and hard-working – Missouri mule not only became the state’s official animal, but served as an economic boon not just for Lathrop, but the railroads, suppliers and other interests throughout the state.
It would seem that the hard-headed cantankerous animal was also the perfect complement to Missouri’s reputation as the Show-Me State.
After all, the mule was a poor man’s horse – a label that struck a chord with rural residents who worked the land.