Wednesday, July 3, 2013

How did your famer ancestor power his operations? It matters.

The child standing by the wagon is believed to be Raymond Lamont Pierce (1923-1981). The adults on the wagon have not been identified. The children and their families were part of the farming community of Wilmer, Alabama, in the 1930s.

The small wheels on the front of the wagon allowed it to turn in a smaller circle than if it had large wheels to match those in the back.

A farmer faced a critical decision in the choice of horses or mules to power his farm operations and do such things as pull a wagon. The choice involved more than simple taste for one animal over the other or even price, although costs were always important.

Horses worked well for some types of crops and ways of farming, while mules worked well for others. Farmers found that the mule’s narrower stance and smaller hooves made it a better choice than a horse for closely spaced row crops such as cotton, tobacco, sugar cane, and others. A mule could plow a straight furrow after being pointed in the right direction, whereas a horse needed constant attention to be kept on a straight course.

If agricultural records show that your farmer ancestor shifted to using more mules than horses, then it may mean that he switched to growing more closely spaced row crops, especially cotton or tobacco.

Do you know if your farmer ancestor used horses or mules? Why did he make that choice? Do you have evidence that he changed from one animal to other at some point? How is that reflected in the corps he grew?

Photo Source: Lucille Pierce Hogancamp


  1. Interesting, Ralph! I did not know these details about horses and mules and wheels.

    I do know that when my uncle, in 1933, lost his house and had to move his family 30 miles away to farm another man's land (it was a kind of sharecropping), he was supplied with only mules and a plow. He had no electricity or running water, either. Everything was done with crude tools. After some years, he was able to build a homemade panel truck to carry supplies.

    Gradually my uncle accumulated enough to buy back his house and get a John Deere tractor, and eventually a combine. His family, with 8 children, moved back home in 1943. In one photo, my uncle sitting on his new tractor looks like the happiest man I ever saw!

    You are so right. It matters.

    1. Economic historian Larry Sawyers has called the mule “the most important technological advance in Southern agriculture” from the end of the Civil War until the use of tractors in the 1920s.