In the June 6, 1975 issue of the Los Angeles Times, Outdoor Writer Lupe Saldana wrote the following observation on Bishop Mule Days, then celebrating its sixth birthday:
“A new celebrity is emerging in the equine world, the lowly mule. Its sudden popularity for riding, racing and packing is making it a high-priced, highly prized animal. The price of a good mule has tripled lately, with selling a previously unheard-of price of $6,000.
A few years ago these ‘diamonds in the rough,’ as one packer calls them, sold for $200 to $400 with few takers. Now the asking price is $600 to $1,000 with lots of takers.
Members of the horsey set started saddling up mules as a lark about five years ago, and now the fad has caught on. Mule experts estimate that the riding of mules for pleasure has increased more than 10 times since 1970.
Part of the credit for the new interest in mules goes to the Chamber of Commerce of Bishop. Its annual Mule Days celebration is the leading Southern California showcase for the old-time beasts of burden.
This folksy event staged at Bishop at the foot of the High Sierras started as a hometown happening in 1970. This year it showed signs of becoming a national attraction. A parade down Main St. over the Memorial Day weekend drew 20,000 people.
All motels were sold out, and record crowds jammed the Tri-County Fairgrounds for the three-day program. The big events were mule racing, reining, packing and shoeing.
Mules come in all sizes and colors, depending on the parents. They are the offspring of a male ass and female horse. Horses from ponies to Percherons are used.
The mule has long ears, a short mane, small feet and a tail with a tuft of long hairs at the end. From the jackass it gets its ability to conserve strength, work hard for long periods, carry heavy loads, be sure of foot – and be stubborn.
One thing that tends to hold down the price of mules is that both males and females are sterile. On rare occasions, a female mule bred to a male ass or stallion has produced an offspring.
Mule Days are conceived by Bob Tanner, a Sierra packer for 26 of his 45 years, as a way to get publicity for the slumping packing business. Glorifying mules was a byproduct.
….fifty mules were entered in 1970 events and this year there were 300. Entries, once mostly locals, this year came from Texas, Colorado, Idaho, Oregon, Nevada, Arizona, New Mexico, and many parts of California.
….What attracted the visitors?
….A college student from Riverdale, near Fresno, gave a typical answer: Mules are something special. They’re twice as smart as horses. That’s why it takes twice as long to train them.’
(He) said that because mules are so smart they refuse to immediately buckle under to man, but when they do come around they are superior to horses.
Others like mules because they are hardier than horses, easier to care for than horses, and make better pets and work animals.
Packers have always favored mules for backcountry carrying work because they are surefooted, carry heavy loads and are easy to keep in feed because they aren’t finicky what they eat.
They say it is impossible to overload a mule because if the animal feels overloaded it won’t budge.
There’s no comparison in longevity between mules and horses. Some mules are hearty at 30, living to 35. Horses are old at 15.
Critics say mules are treacherous and difficult to control.
“That’s true,’ a packer says, ‘but they aren’t born that way. They’re made that way. They’re smart and they won’t stand abuse. Treated with respect, they are worthy friends and loyal servants.’
Newcomers are advised that to successfully handle a mule a person must be firm and never show fear.
The mules and merchants aren’t the only ones who get a boost from Mule Days. The winner’s circle was dominated by women, who use skill rather than muscle to control their mules.
….Denton Sonke, manager of the Bishop chamber, says the women dominated the events ‘because they’re dedicated. ‘They spend lots of time training and riding their mules. The boys spend most of their time with hot rods.’
The mule business appears to have a bright future because the increase in prices has encouraged breeders to use thoroughbred mares. In the past the least desirable mares were used for breeding.
And Tanner says Mule Days has a big future ‘because this is a different kind of show…You never know what’s going to happen with a mule.’ “
Photos from 1975 printed in the 1976 Mule Days program.