#Lookback: Bullwackers and Mule Skinners
What do we do on a cold snowy January day when the pantry is low on flour and sugar or you have discovered your boots will not last another season? We go to the well- stocked stores that are not far from home. The problem can be solved within an hour.
In the 1800’s these items were not always readily available. Items needed for daily life had to be brought in by freight wagons. It took the wagons, pulled by a string of horses, mules or oxen three to four weeks to make a trip from Rawlins or Casper to Lander. Almost everything you needed in the way of food, clothing and shelter depended on the freight teams to make that difficult journey and at times impossible in the winter.
You hear about the people who set up the cattle ranches, saloons, barber shops, livery stables, hotels, and mines. You read stories about the lawmen, outlaws, doctors, school teachers, preachers and cowhands. You don’t hear as much about the mercantile contingent – the freighters. These are the firms and colorful individuals that supplied the American frontier the necessities, and an occasional luxury or two, that they needed to survive in isolated frontier towns like Lander. They delivered the clothing, building materials, utensils, dishes, tools, tack, canned goods, flour, sugar, coffee and thousands of other goods to the Baldwin Store, Noble and Lane, Bossert’s, and Woodruff’s Mercantile store.
Before railroads were built freight wagons, pulled by horses, mules or oxen, were the best means of hauling freight. The animals pulling the wagons were known as string teams. The drivers were called “bullwhackers” for teams of oxen, or “mule skinners” for mule trains, they drove the wagons and guarded the freight. These were the original “teamsters”.
The freight industry also provided a means for a person to make a living. According to article written by historian, Bill Marion, Lander had several local teamsters. The life of a freighter was not easy, he had to be skilled in handling his animals. The large wagons were filled to the brim. Each animal could handle pulling about a 1,000 pounds. A good 18 string team could haul from 18 to 20 thousand pounds of goods. The driver and animals had to endure the heat, cold, snow, and mud. The wagon trails were rough dusty and dangerous. The freight line owners had a tremendous investment in wagons and animals.
Today we see the large 18-wheel trucks parked at the local stores. In the 1880’s when the people in Lander heard the hoofs and wheels coming down Lander’s wide dusty Main Street, they would know they could then purchase much needed supplies from the local merchants.
No doubt many a wager was made at the end of a run debating whether oxen, mule, or horse teams were best. Like buying a motorized vehicle today, it depends on the terrain, how much cash or credit you have, and how fast you want to get where you are going.
The one commonality between “bull whackers” and “mule skinners” is the bullwhip. It was his badge of recognition. The lash might be as short as ten, or as long as twenty, feet of heavy braided rawhide with a “popper” on the end to make it crack. Merely cracked overhead, a bullwhip could inspire the dumbest ox or most obstinate mule to greater effort.
After decades of hardships, the delivery of goods became easier. The train arrived in Lander the fall of 1906 pulled by a large smoking steam engine. The freight wagons became obsolete and were replaced by the train. This was the beginning of many changes for Lander from the economics to the population growth of the town.
Next up for the Fremont County Museums
January 16th at the Riverton Museum 6:30pm, “Routine Patrol: Memoirs of a Small Town Cop” By Bart Ringer
Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series
January 23rd at the Dubois Museum 7pm, “From Clovis to Cowboy: Five Years of Archaeological Reconnaissance … in the Wind River Mountains, Wyoming” By Todd Guenther
Wyoming Community Bank Discovery Speakers Series
February 8th at the Riverton Museum 2pm, “Exploring Historic Computers”
Bailey Tire/Pit Stop Children’s Exploration Series
February 14th at the Riverton Museum 5:30-9:30, “Murder Mystery Night at the Museum: Roaring 20’s”
Consider supporting The Dubois Museum, the Pioneer Museum in Lander or the Riverton Museum with a monetary donation. The museums are more reliant than ever on donations from the private sector to continue to provide the quality programs, collections management, exhibits and services that have become their hallmark. Please make your tax deductible contribution to be used specifically for the benefit of the museum of your choosing by sending a check to Fremont County Museums 450 N 2nd Rm 320 or taking it directly to the museum you choose to support.
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