On July 20, the day this story came out in the print edition of The Journal-News, Murphy's Mules announced on its Facebook page that the Missouri State Fair horse and mule show had been canceled, ending a 62-year consecutive streak of Ed Murphy showing mules. We appreciate all the Murphys have done for promoting mules and hope that you enjoy this story.
It’s been 40 years since Ed Murphy got his first pair of mules, Jack and Judy, from Claude Adams of Lamar, MO.
Since then, the “animals that built America” have taken Murphy and his family to shows all over the Midwest, providing countless memories and friendships.
But with the COVID-19 pandemic rearing its ugly head this year, the Murphys’ streak of showing mules was in danger until the start of this month. With their usual haunts, the Illinois State Fairs in Springfield and DuQuoin, cancelled this year, the Murphys found a different venue to show their mules in 2020, one that they hadn’t been to in 24 years.
“My dad told me that 1958 was the first year that he got to go to the Missouri State Fair,” said Ed’s son and co-owner of Murphy’s Mules, Courtney Murphy. “I think he went every year between 1958 and 1996.”
1996 was the year that the Missouri State Fair changed its dates from the week after the Illinois State Fair to the same week as the shows in Springfield.
“In the old days, we would get released from the Illinois State Fair on a Wednesday and we’d have to be in Sedalia by Saturday,” Courtney said. “There were many years that I missed the first few days of school, because school would have already started by then.”
If there was one mule show to have this year, the Missouri State Fair show is the one. The state animal of Missouri, mules are firmly entrenched in the history of the state and the show in Sedalia is one of the country’s largest.
“What’s neat about the Missouri State Fair is that they claim that they have the world champion mule. All the first place winners get called back and compete for it,” Courtney explained. “Twenty-four years ago it was a huge deal. The place would be packed to watch the world champion mule. I don’t know if it’s still that way now.”
Courtney remembers the winner of the world champion mule being given a blanket of roses and a silver tea set. He should know too, since the Murphys have won the honor a few times in their show career.
“I know we won it when I was in eighth grade, because I had to write the obligatory ‘what you did all summer’ essay and I wrote all about winning the world champion mule at the Missouri State Fair,” said Courtney, who wasn’t sure if the roses and tea set are still part of the spoils of the winners.
The decision to go to Sedalia wasn’t finalized until July, when the fair announced that they were planning to have payouts for the draft horse and mule show, unlike the other livestock shows. Before then, the Murphys were in limbo of whether they were going to be able to show anywhere in their 40th season.
“We were sitting there all of May and June trying to figure out what we were going to do with the mules,” Courtney said. “During show season, we’ll flip their schedule. We’ll turn them out at night to get the dew on them, which makes their coat shiny and really nice. Then in the day time, we’ll put them in so they don’t get sunburnt and their hair doesn’t get bleached out.”
Whether to follow that plan or start working the mules and risk injury or skinning them up was what the Murphys and others were struggling with during those months.
“There was just a lot of uncertainty. A lot of the draft horse guys pulled their shoes off in May and June and just let their horses get lazy,” Courtney said. “There have been a few draft horse shows, but a lot of the guys are just taking the year off.”
While the Murphys made the decision to go to Sedalia, the extra strain of bringing their hitch team and wagon wasn’t in the cards this year.
“We’re just taking the stock trailer, three mules and a mare and colt,” Courtney explained. “It’s just dad and I and the two girls (Courtney’s daughters Isabella and Sophie). We’re just going to show the halter classes.”
Courtney said that the family’s current hitch is comprised of four older mules and the trip to Sedalia would have been a strain on the animals.
“I think they’re hanging out at the bars when we’re not paying attention,” Courtney joked. “It’s kind of hard to ask them to go (to Missouri). We have three younger mules, but we haven’t had a chance to perfect them to go into competition.”
With fewer mule shows and little competition in the region, Courtney isn’t sure if a new show string of mules is in the plans for the family. But even if the hitch doesn’t last for ever, the Murphys’ legacy is going nowhere.
“I can’t imagine us not having mules. My daughters are starting to take an interest in the draft mares and the mule colts. They see how much work it takes, but also the pride in it. They really like it,” said Courtney, whose daughter Isabella will be a senior at Sacred Heart-Griffin and is considering veterinarian school in college.
Courtney said that the market for mules is also still strong, with buyers in Missouri, Oklahoma and Texas using the animals for farming or logging. He added that the Amish are also a big buyer of mules, with settlements in Illinois, Kentucky and Pennsylvania putting the sturdy animals to work. Mules have also been utilized to help fight forest fires in California and carry weaponry in wars in Afghanistan.
The versatility and history of the mules are part of why the Murphys continue to breed and show these animals. In Sedalia, they will have two four-year-old mares (female) mules and one four-year-old horse (male) mule, in addition to a mare and colt pair that Courtney has high hopes for.
“We’re pretty proud of the colt. His name is Rex and he’s quite the looker,” Courtney said, adding that the fair crowns a mare and colt champion. “I’m pretty excited about it. I’m one of those people who wants to show him off, because I think he’s good. My dad doesn’t want to show him off... because he think’s he’s good.”
Regardless of how the mules fare at the fair, the trip will be another opportunity for the family to do what they love and to highlight an animal that has contributed so much to this country and the Murphy family.
“They have made for great papers to write in school. They’ve helped us make some great connections. We’ve all kind of grown up with them and they’ve really been wonderful for all of us.”