Mules and watermelon

Guest Posts on County 10 are provided by contributors and the opinions, thoughts, and comments within are their own and may not necessarily reflect those of County 10.

One of the benefits of writing stories about the farming and ranching families in Fremont County is the connections they remind me of in the story of my family. A family of early 20th century immigrants from Switzerland, and cotton farmers in eastern Arkansas descended from Scottish and English settlers.

My favorite memory of my grandfather Forrest Tucker, came when I was only five years old. Grandpa had a 35-acre cotton farm in Lee County, Arkansas, but his pride and joy was his half-acre watermelon patch.


He had already tilled the cotton field with his International H tractor, but the watermelon patch took extra care.

He had a black mule, with a grayish-brown muzzle that he used for a variety of chores around the farm. He sometimes pulled neighbor’s pickups and cars out of the mud with the mule, but he always plowed the watermelon patch with her.

I watched with fascination as he hooked up the harness, and led her to a single-blade, one-way plow. He called it a “middle buster” and with me walking alongside he started to cut clean, straight furrows. After the first run, he told me to grab the handles of the plow and stand on his feet.

For the next hour or so, I stood on Grandpa’s feet as he walked behind the mule. He threw the reins over his shoulder, kept both hands on the plow handles, and guided the mule gently with little grunts, whistles, and chirps to get her to speed up, slow down, and turn left or right.


It’s been six decades since that walk with Grandpa in the watermelon patch, but I still see it clearly in my mind’s eye.

Grandpa was a skilled hunter, woodsman, and a joker, all mixed into his bony 5-8 frame.

One day a couple of years later, he clipped a support post on the awning connected to his barn with a disc hooked to the tractor.


The roof held but sagged a little big.

He winked at me and said, “Go get my axe boy.”

It was the first time I was able to carry the axe by myself. Grandpa preferred a razor-sharp double-blade axe for work around the farm.


There was still a section of virgin forest to the east side of the place, and as he took the axe from me, he tipped his head in a motion meaning, “Come with me.”

We walked a couple of hundred yards, and there was a Catawba tree with the same diameter trunk as the post he’d just broken in half.

He took a few swings of the axe, chips flew, and the tree came down. He trimmed the branches and cut it to about 12 feet.

He let me carry the axe back as he lifted the green post to his shoulder and we returned to the barn.

It was the only I’ve seen someone pull a post out of the ground with a mule and a chain. The broken post pulled easily in the rich Arkansas dirt.

Grandpa slide the pole into the hole, held it against awning, and marked it. He took it back out, cut it to length with a handsaw, then tamped it tight with the handle of a shovel.

I “helped” him lift the barn roof to the right height, and we slipped a 2×4 into place to hold it there. A couple of ring shank nails reconnected the roof to the post and we were finished.

It was a lesson I took to heart. In the intervening 60 years, I’ve completed dozens, perhaps hundreds of similar jobs with posts, roof structures, and beams. Little did I dream of using that skill that day long ago with my grandpa. I just loved the time alone with him, and watching how creative he was with the natural materials at hand.

We moved to California a few years later and I was only able to see Grandma and Grandpa for a few weeks each summer.

One of those summers I went out to the barn to see how our patch on that broken post had held up. To my amazement it hadn’t just held up, the post was alive.

The peculiar thing about many trees in the near sub-tropical climate of the American South is that they’ll sprout. The Catawba sprouted from that 12-foot post and had grown into a tree at least 15 feet high just a few years later. When Sue and I went back to Lee County on our honeymoon in 1982, I checked the tree. The old Catawba was now a mature 30-foot tall tree, with a slightly askew lean-to barn roof hanging on it. The trunk had taken a right angle to follow the sun, then grown vertically once again.

I like to imagine that it’s still there, but likely it’s not.

They don’t grow much cotton in that section of Arkansas these days, and old pristine, virgin forest was gone back in 82’, the victim of progress.

The watermelon patches are just a distant memory as well. It’s still an incredibly productive agricultural area, but rice, crawdads, and catfish have taken the place of cotton and melons.

It’s an interesting process to see the farmers harvest crawdads as they drain the rice fields for harvest. The farm ponds that once dotted the area, filled with bluegill, catfish, and largemouth bass, have now grown exponentially and produce commercial catfish, fed on a mixture of grain, meat by-products and other residue of industrial agriculture.

When I think of those hot summer days, and the misty winter afternoons wandering the woods with my grandfather, a John Denver classic comes to mind.

It might not be my absolute favorite, but it’s high on the list.

“Had an uncle named Matthew, he was his father’s only boy, born just south of Colby, Kansas, he was his mother’s pride and joy. Yes, and joy was just the thing that he was raised on, love is just the way to live and die, gold is just a windy Kansas wheat field, and blue is just a Kansas summer sky.”

It wasn’t the windswept plains of Kansas, just the muggy farm country a few miles west of the Mississippi, but I learned joy in the wilderness, the joy that comes from a hard day’s work, and the love of a grandfather for his only grandson.

I can only hope my granddaughters someday have similar memories.  Love is the way to live and die.


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