Friday, September 13, 2019

Last Muleskinner on the Erie

The blog has been on hiatus while we were at our internet-free family camp in MA. Now we’ll catch you up on the final days of our August cruise to Buffalo.

Mon., Aug 26th: From the old salt port of Holley, we puttered our way east under sunny skies to dock in the college town of Brockport, where earlier in the month we’d enjoyed the local street festival and duck race

A mule sculpture stands sentinel at the Brockport Visitor Center
As we got ready to depart next morning, a woman, her six-year-old grandson, and a young man strolled up to watch. They had the usual questions about our solar panels. Noting how our boat resembled an old-fashioned Erie Canal boat, the young man remarked, “I was the last mule skinner on the Erie.”

How Is This Possible?

Mules were phased out as a canal boat power source by the 1920s, when the expanded Erie Barge Canal opened. Towboats powered by internal combustion engines pushed big rafts of barges along the wider, deeper new canal.

So. No mules after 1920. This guy was not 110 years old. Tell us about your mule skinning days, please!
19th-century mule team on the Erie . . . 
It seems that this man’s father had an Erie Canal-themed restaurant in Medina, the Apple Grove Inn. The sprawling but cozy establishment, with reproduction apple trees "growing" inside the building, was quite the local attraction. From 1988 onwards, till the restaurant closed in 2004, a reproduction canal boat was docked out front--so patrons could take a ride.

And yep, that canal boat was mule-drawn. Our new friend had the job of supervising the mules, walking behind them along the towpath. (Pix and more info here.)

Skinner or Not Skinner?

Now, to quibble just a tiny bit, the person who supervises the team of mules that pulls a canal boat is not, strictly speaking a mule-skinner. The official title for this iconic Erie Canal job is hoggee (rhymes with “boggy”).

Often, the hoggee was just a boy, maybe about 10 years old, barefoot and wearing overalls and a straw hat. It was a terrible job: working long hours, walking long distances, for little pay and sometimes, lots of abuse from the captain.

In contrast to a hoggee, a mule skinner is someone who drives a mule-drawn wagon. Sits up on a seat. Holds the reins. The name mule skinner is said to come from the unpleasant practice of whipping stubborn mules till they bleed. OK, put that thought from your mind right now.

Yet . . . it sounds romantic, doesn’t it? “Last Muleskinner on the Erie.” You can almost see the melancholy oil painting, showing the tired boy prodding his team under a lowering sun in a cloudy sky.

You can almost hear the sad drumbeat of a dirgelike poem. “That’s the last muleskinner, trudging along the canal. . . “

I bet he’s used that line on LOTS of girls. I wonder if it worked?

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