Old Mules, Old Tradition

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By Linda Fite,Times Herald-Record: Posted Apr 24, 2003 at 2:00 AM

Plowing demonstration at Marlborough Middle school with Sean Henry behind the plow.

“They say match a young mule with a young man, and an old man with an old mule,” says Howard Quimby, 75, as he slings part of the leather harness over the broad back of his mule, Virgil, who is “at least” 30 years old.

A young mule means a lot of work — training to teach it and more training to keep it in line. Old mules, like old mule men, already know.

Along with Virgil, there’s Kate, who’s 29. The two are the offspring of Belgian mares and mammoth jacks, extra-large jackasses. The pair is steady, patient and tractable.

At one time in the mid-Hudson, as across the rest of America, draft horses and mules did the work. They pulled the plows, hauled the rocks, yanked the stumps and carried the burdens of clearing and working the land.

Then, the internal combustion engine appeared. Tractors followed. Horses, oxen and mules simply became less efficient and less important.

Small farms and their farmers met a similar fate, squelched by development and agribusiness.

But Quimby persists. His family has been in the Marlboro area for a long time. His father bought the farm on Mt. Zion Road in 1940, and Quimby and his wife took over running the place after that, raising their four daughters there.

Quimby, like others who use draft animals rather than machines for farm work, prefers the slow and steady pace. He likes the quiet.

And he likes the mules themselves. They’ve got a lot more personality than a tractor. Years ago, Quimby used draft teams for haying, plowing and harvesting, not to mention pulling logs.

The work load is easier nowadays. Virgil and Kate help out by towing the manure spreader through Quimby’s grape arbor, easily making the tight turns at the end of each row. And sometimes the team gets loaded in the horse trailer and heads off to a Hudson Valley Draft Horse Association event, like this weekend’s Spring Plow in Kerhonkson.

“I hate to brag, but I’ve had two first prizes in the walking plow [competition],” says Quimby.

“Not just because of me, but because the mules are slow and steady … and pretty obedient.”

But what they like best is the ancient comfort of the Quimby farm, with its panoramic views of the Hudson Valley. Parts of the farm’s barn, where the mules, goats and one rooster live, date from the mid-18th century.

On the hillside, the cool spring wind blows hard against the trees. The goats bleat and the rooster struts and crows, and you can hear the mules’ harness clink. And it could be now, or 100 years ago.