Lexington raises racehorses and Shelbyville turns out Tennessee Walking Horses, but Columbia has been majoring in mules for nearly 200 years.
In fact, the area has been called the Mule Capital of the World, thanks to its rich history as a mule-trading center and Mule Day, its signature celebration of the hard-working farm animal.
An annual springtime mule show and sale that started here in the early 1800s – formerly called First Monday and Breeders Day – became for a time one of the largest livestock markets in the world. In 1934, the addition of a Mule Day parade lent the sale a festive atmosphere. The original Mule Day eventually went away for a time, but the Maury County Bridle and Saddle Club brought it back to life in 1974.
“Mule Day has since grown from a small-town festival to one of the premier events in the Southeast,” says Harvey Spann, who has been bringing his own mules to the show since its revival 35 years ago.
“People come from all over,” he says. Mules come from all over, too, to take part in a range of competitive events and exhibitions throughout the four-day festival. “There are a lot of good animals – really well trained. We have different shows, including a mule-pulling championship and a gaited mule show. We have a parade that’s geared to mule- and horsepower. A couple hundred wagons and teams from all over the country participate.” Additional festival attractions include arts and crafts, a liars’ contest, a beauty pageant, square dancing and children’s activities.
“But it’s not a county fair,” Spann says. “It’s all about the mule. It’s one of the few places where you can have this kind of fun.” Or experience this kind of community pride. “I think people take pride in it because it puts us on the map,” Spann continues. “We’ve been raising mules here since before World War I, and we’ve supplied animals to every war effort in modern history. Because of their pack ability and agility in rough terrain, there are mules from here being used by the military in Afghanistan today.
”Festival attendance estimates range from 150,000 to 300,000 visitors annually. Visitors come from almost every state and several countries, and they pump more than $15 million into the local economy. It’s hard to pinpoint the exact numbers, says Louise Mills, Mule Day’s publicity director. “I just know it’s a bunch of people – and a bunch of mules.”
Mule Day takes place Thursday through Sunday the weekend preceding the first Monday in April each year and is held at Maury County Park. Visit www.muleday.com for more information about the annual Mule Day event.