In the spring of 1970, a group of commercial packers got together in Bishop, California to have a little fun and get the kinks out of their mules before starting the summer tourist season into the southern Sierra Nevada Mountains. What started out as a neighborly get-together, including a few contests related to packing mules, soon turned into one of the largest annual mule shows in the country. Not only are commercial packers now involved, there are entries from National Parks, National Forests, the U.S. Marines, and private stock users who show up in large numbers to demonstrate their packing skills and add to the excitement.
Mules come from everywhere: Oregon, Nevada, Ohio, Tennessee, New Mexico, and Arizona, as well as California. You name it, mules and their handlers come from everywhere to be part of this great show.
Each year on Memorial Day weekend, Bishop is wall to wall mules and mule lovers, as well as young and old people alike who just want to have a good time. Events start as early in the week as Wednesday and continue through Sunday evening. Every conceivable contest imaginable involving mules takes place each afternoon and evening. If you own a mule, there is most likely an event the two of you could enter and have a good time, but beware, the competition is tough.
If you're a spectator, there are bound to be a lot of the shows you will get a kick out of, as there is something for everyone to enjoy. Events include, but are not limited to: halter classes, large and small team driving, pleasure riding, and obstacle courses that challenge the best pack mule strings in the country. There are mule races, chariot races, and pack hitch (both diamond and box hitch) contests. There is the comical "Dolly Parton Race," musical chairs, and pulling events, too. Pulling farm implements, log skidding, and many other events including the always exciting ''pack mule scramble" are there to watch.
Each year, there is a Saturday morning parade, which is a completely non-motorized parade featuring mules from all around the country as well as a number of honored guests. In the 1988 Mule Days Celebration, the Grand Marshal was Toni Tennille. Best Friends of the packers were Bill and Louise Keley. Marilyn and I were named Most Honored Packers. To my knowledge, this was the first time a husband and wife shared this honor. In that Saturday parade, Marilyn and I rode in a neat buggy drawn by two nice mules that were driven by Lou Roeser, with his wife, Marye, riding shotgun.
Highway 395 is the main route along the eastern edge of the Sierra, linking Los Angeles with the state of Oregon, and runs right through the center of Bishop. To accommodate the Saturday parade, the major highway is literally closed to all motorized traffic for several hours. Well before the parade starts, the sidewalks bordering the highway become lined with parade spectators. The parade's starting point is at the south end of town and goes to the fairgrounds where the parade ends and makes its grand entry into the show's arena.
Also in 1988, the big Thursday night main entertainment show featured Mel Tillis. Friday and Saturday nights, The Monte Mills Lucky Horseshoe Band performed for its 12th year. During the mule shows, Bob Tallman did his usual great job as announcer, while clowns Rick Chatman and Tom Feller really did a great job of entertaining the crowd and scaring some mules nearly out of the arena with their antics.
The last year we had a booth at Bishop Mule Days where we sold pack equipment, I ran into a fellow by the name of Jim Mahony while I was taking a little break from work. Jim, who was from Ohio, was driving his beautiful four-up sorrel draft mules. The mules were decked out in Amish made black show harnesses covered with brass spots. The team was hitched to a custom-made show wagon that was painted bright red. The wheels and tires were of automotive type, making it ride nicely. With hydraulic brakes on all four wheels, this outfit was quite safe.
I had always wanted to drive a team of mules, and these mules really struck my fancy. When I went back to our booth, I told Marilyn about the mules I had seen and how nice they were. The first thing she said was, "Are they for sale?" I hadn't asked if they were for sale, and buying them had not crossed my mind. I just thought they were nice mules and enjoyed watching them work.
As it turned out, the mules were for sale, and after four days of looking and an hour driving them, we did buy the lead team, Kate and Queen. These "girls," as Marilyn and I called them, were 10 years old and had been in parades and mule shows all through Ohio and Tennessee as well as attending the Florida State Fair for several years. Jim had also mowed and raked hay with them using old-time farm equipment, so they knew how to work as well as being show mules. As we were loading the mules into our trailer, before heading back to Exeter, Jim casually said, "Be sure you don't yell at Kate."
When we got home, we got right in and ordered a wagon similar to the Mahony wagon, with a varnish finish showing the nice wood grain instead of red paint. We also ordered a forecart at the same time.