Before horsepower meant something under a tractor hood, primarily mules, but sometimes actual horses, were the means to a farmer’s livelihood. Yet, driving a plow mule was no easy task. Dewey Powers (“Da” to his grandchildren) knew that full well. On his farm in Effingham, South Carolina, he had to make sure the animal –– sometimes as stubborn as, well, a mule –– obeyed and plowed even, straight, deep rows. It was imperative to hold the plow at the right level in the ground, as going too deep would be too difficult for the mule and cause the plow to get stuck, and rows too shallow couldn’t hold the crop seed.
Elgin tractor collector Paul Towns says he learned to operate a horse-drawn plow for the annual Sparkleberry Fair demonstrations. He says there is certainly a finesse to handling plow handles and harnesses. “Everyone thinks the mule (or horse) actually pulls the plow, but it pushes against the collar of the harness. Say ‘gee’ to make them go right and ‘haw’ to make them go left. It is some hard work and is really an art to make sure the rows are not crooked,” he says.
Apparently crooked rows would later impede the cultivator, which removed the weeds. Paul further explains how blacksmith John Deere, before his name became synonymous with tractors, first became famous making an efficient forged steel plow. (Read more about tractor history on page 70.)
Dewey’s son-in-law, Harold Motte, became a professional photographer after returning home from WWII, and he used a field-view camera to capture this late 1940s image of his father-in-law in what would be either a cotton or a tobacco field. Harold’s daughter, Elizabeth (Bette) Cox, remembers him also capturing outdoor portraits of her, her brother, and her young uncle that same Sunday afternoon. “It always took forever to get my picture made, so I never liked Daddy making me sit in front of the camera!” she says with a laugh.
Eventually, tractors replaced mules and horses on South Carolina farms, pushing images such as this into history books and archival museums. Yet, memories of that simpler time still sweetly linger. Bette remembers Da setting her astride that “very tall” mule, and she cried because the ground was so far below her. Bette says she never learned how to drive the mule, but Da did teach her how to drive his Farmall tractor some years later.