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Wednesday, July 15, 2009


Simon Ward and the Tennessee Mule

This is one of those rare circumstances when a concept can suddenly appear out of nowhere.

I was returning from an art show in Nashville, Tennessee when I decided to take a back road from Knoxville to Kingsport. It was old US Rt 11W. It sort of reminds you of Historic Rt 66 out west with all the old and dilapidated motels and filling stations that dot the landscape. Relics of the past I call them. Most of my finest images have been discovered along these old trails and back-woods byways.

I had just passed through the town of Surgoinsville in my 72-cargo van when I happened to glance over my left shoulder and spotted an old fellow and a mule going through a fresh field of tobacco. He was using an old wooden harrow weighted down with several good size river jacks to make the blade penetrate the soil. This was a sight to behold, as one large mule appeared to be dragging both man and machine through the clod-filled field.
I was caught totally by surprise, but I had my camera pack in the back of the truck and decided to take a chance and capture this image before it passed into oblivion.

I pulled off the road, donned my forty-pound camera pack and quickly climbed over the remains of a fence as the farmer and mule disappeared over the distant crest of the hill. I figured that when he made the next pass, I would be set up and ready to capture this image for posterity. It happened just as I had planned, and I made a couple of precisely timed exposures before the operation came to a halt. Now, I would have to explain to this man why I was standing in the middle of his field with a heavy tripod and camera aimed in his direction.

I did not have my dog Rufus with me on this trip, but I quickly introduced myself and told him exactly what I was doing. Simon Ward was his name, and he just shook his head and chuckled over the whole sequence of events. Bottom line, he was flattered that I would want to photograph his mule Kate.

Simon was quite a character. He probably didn’t weight more than a hundred and twenty pounds with all his clothes on. But he sure could handle that great Tennessee Mule.

We chatted and he told me all about Kate and how he had traded a watch for her some year’s back. She was 22 years old and huge. The interesting thing was that the watch he traded for Kate had been lost for some time before he happened to spot it one day lying out in a field. It still worked, so he traded it for Kate. “Been together ever since” he said.

It’s a good thing I grabbed a quick bite on the road, because Simon would not hear of me leaving before I hiked over the hill with him to see his second mule Meg. He sure was proud of those two mules. I ended up spending most of the afternoon talking about mules and other things relating to farming, fishing and hunting. One thing Simon had plenty of was time and good tales. He also had a good listener. It was a hot afternoon in June 1974 as we sat and passed the time of day under a large oak tree.

Before we parted company Simon insisted that I photograph both mules. This time I was able to capture all three of them, as they stood high off the ground in grand style.

In November 2003, I received a totally unexpected e-mail from a lady whose address was RIDGERUNNER. Her name was Lynn Ward, and she had tracked me down on the Internet to learn a little more about two images that she had uncovered in her grandfather’s possessions. My name was stamped on the back, and she just had the urge to track the artist down.

As I read her letter she explained, “I hate to be the one to tell you this, but Papaw died 08-15-97. The doctors told him he had leukemia in 1987 and he never went back to the doctor again, but he lived for another ten good years after that. He raised me since I was two, and I was one year old when you took that picture back in 1974.”

I was deeply touched by the fact that someone would go to the trouble to track me down after all these years and ask me if I was really the one who had made those images. My goodness, that was thirty-five years ago.

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