from “‘Hell Yes’ and ‘Heavens No’ – The Story of a 1950s Farm Boy”
A Memoir by Russ Mullen
Herd them, chase them, cuss them.
Keep those cows a-goin’.
Don’t let them calves be laggin’,
let Poncho do the crowdin’.
And when we finish drivin’,
the night will find us smilin’.
Selling our first horse, Melinda, was the farm version of a close friend moving away, a final parting. The inner sorrow was familiar to me from losing farm pets. Knowing that she was in a good place helped soothe the ache of looking at the vacant yard where she had greeted us each day. Only after she left, did I realize how much I valued seeing her every morning – her head and neck hanging over the board fence in the rising sun and looking at me with those big brown eyes partially hidden by wind-blown strands of her dark mane. But her foal, Poncho, kept me linked to Melinda and made me focus on my new role as a horse trainer. I checked out books at the library, interviewed old horse men in Massena and reread some of my old western cowboy novels. At age 14, I began my two-year journey into cowboy life in tennis shoes and a ball cap.
Training Poncho to ride was completed in stages:
Foal: While feeding him – Putting my hands on him, grooming him, rubbing him, scratching him, leaning on him, hanging on him, talking to him, putting a rope around his neck, a blanket on his back.
Yearling Colt: Same activities as a foal plus using a rope halter, putting a saddle on him, cinching the saddle, putting my brothers and sisters on him, leading him to walk.
Gelding: Using a bridle, sitting on him, leading him with bridle and saddle on. Training him to go right or left, to recognize voice commands, to walk, to trot. Establishing authority, controlling galloping, building trust.
Poncho matured into a handsome young horse, stood 16 hands, and had a clean, uniform gray coat. He was a well-behaved young animal with good composition and disposition. Like Melinda, Poncho and I roamed the pastures and timbers searching for nesting sows and building our bond under the sunrise and sunset trails of our farm.
Poncho became a good cattle driver too. We rotated our cattle herd among 8 to 10 pastures spread out over a 12-mile radius of home during spring, summer and fall months. Most of the cattle drives by farmers in our area were four miles or less, nothing as big as our cattle drive from the ‘Hundred-and-Twenty,’ nicknamed from the 120-acre pasture near Reno, Iowa in Edna Township. The Hundred-and-Twenty cattle drive was 12 miles of Level A gravel roads (regular maintenance) and Level B dirt roads marked with posted warning signs: “Minimum Maintenance – Enter At Your Own Risk.” We built up a lot of notoriety in SW Iowa over a 10-year period beginning in the early 1960s. A cattle drive of that length was unheard of among our relatives, friends and neighbors who dubbed it ‘The Great Mullen Cattle Drive.’
“BREAKFAST,” Dad yelled at 6 a.m. on a Saturday morning in October, 1965. His deep voice raced up the stairs and slapped our ears. “DON’T MAKE ME COME UP THERE. YOU HAVE ONE MINUTE TO GET DOWN HERE AND EAT.”
Sons and daughters raced down the stairs, some trying to reach the bathroom first. A stampede of different-sized feet hitting wood stairs in staccato notes. The aroma of fried eggs, crispy bacon, toast, fried potatoes, and oatmeal immediately triggered hunger pangs before reaching the stairway landing.
“We are moving cattle from the Hundred-and-Twenty today and we need everyone to help round up cows and calves and move them home,” Dad stated. “Dress warm and wear good socks and boots because we will be crossing creeks and walking a long way today. We are going to take off after chores this morning and I want everyone ready to go at 9:00 a.m. sharp. Bring some water to drink. Some of you will need to ride with Mom to the pasture. Later she will bring us lunch to eat while we are driving cattle on the road.”
Excitement filled the air on this cool sunny October day – a day of outdoor adventure, a day of unfolding challenges, and a day that we will be talking about years later.
“Dad, I want to saddle up Poncho and take him with us,” I said.
“Let’s just get over there, son. We don’t have a lot of time to mess around with loading up a horse. We have enough walkers and a pickup to round them up,” Dad said.
“Yes, let’s just get over there,” said my two younger brothers.
“Dad, I’ve been training Poncho for two years, just for this kind of work. I’ll load the stock rack on the pickup, and I’ll saddle and load Poncho. I’ll unload Poncho when we get there. You won’t have to do a thing. And Poncho will be a big help if we get into trouble with the cows.”
I walked to a small pasture where Poncho was and used one of my best and most appreciated farm tools – a shrill mouth whistle without the need to insert dirty fingers. I was taught the whistle by one of my older cousins six years earlier. Mastering It took three months of tongue exercises, but it was well worth it. Shouting over loud machinery, farm animals, or wind usually didn’t gain anybody’s attention, but the ear-splitting whistle did! And it was pretty nice not tasting the dirt, grease, manure, or whatever else that was stuck to my hands.
“THHUUURREEEK,” I whistled, and the horse came running to me. “Let’s go on The Great Mullen Cattle Drive, Poncho. Are you ready, partner?”
Poncho put his nose under my armpit and lifted, throwing my arm up. It was his way of saying, “Hell yes, I’m ready – let’s skedaddle!”
By 8:30 a.m. the chores were done. Poncho was loaded in the stock rack on the pickup and Dad was at the wheel with two sons. Mom was waiting in the big, gray 1963 Buick Electra 225 with six kids, fingers strumming the wheel. Uncle Eldon was in his 1960 Ford Falcon compact car smoking a Lucky Strike cigarette, his favorite brand. We were a caravan of eager beavers ready to tackle the world.
Twenty minutes later, we turned south off the gravel road onto a dirt road and into the west lane of the 120-acre pasture. We passed remnants of an old house and farmstead at the top of the lane, about 50 yards from the road. The boards were weathered and gray, timbers fallen and perched at different angles, and rooms bare and exposed. Grandpa and Dad lived there in the early 1930s. Dad was about 10 years old and told us that the house walls leaked a lot of cold air in wintertime. Ice formed on the inside of the windows. Grandpa cut trees and firewood for winter heating using only a double-bit axe. Wood-cutting chain saws were not available at that time. A couple lived in a dugout carved out of the hillside about 400 yards east of Grandpa’s house. Dad visited them when he was a kid and was surprised how warm the dirt floor and room were.
The 120-acre pasture was located in a rugged, remote landscape with a creek running into the pasture on the northwest corner. It always felt like Mahaska, chief of the Ioway tribe in 1834, would ride out from our timber to reclaim his land. He was fatally shot in the back that year by a resentful Indian just several miles west of the pasture near the bank of the West Nodaway River. Dad found some arrowheads on our timberland and I always wondered if one of them belonged to Chief Mahaska. I live halfway between Oskaloosa to the east and Des Moines to the west, 60 years later in my retirement years. Oskaloosa is the county seat of Mahaska County, named after Chief Mahaska. I grumble sometimes about my two-hour drive on Highway 92 to my farm and then picture Chief Mahaska riding bareback from Oskaloosa to Massena! That thought squelches the grumbles. I’ll take power steering, a soft warm seat, a hard-surfaced road and 55 mph every time.
The 120 was L-shaped – 80 acres laying north to south and an adjacent 40 acres to the east. Patches of timber separated pastures in crossword puzzle patterns. A ridge of timber stood at the highest peak. From here you could look to the northeast and see St. Timothy’s – Reno Catholic Church. There were plenty of places to hide on the 120 and not one cow could be seen from the old lane where we were parked.
Dad barked orders: “Russ, take Poncho and search the east 40 acres for cows and calves and bring them here. Eldon, Steve and Jeff, Sharon, Mary Jo, and Danny, get in my pickup and I’ll drop you off at various places on the road. Barb and Patty, you can ride with me. Everyone, walk through the timber patches and bring every cow and calf you find. Don’t drive a cow here without her calf. I’ll be here in the lane with the pickup calling the cows and spreading corn on the ground to keep them in one spot. Then, I want all of you to circle around the herd and drive them to the road. We can’t leave any cows or calves here. If we don’t get them all, we have to bring the herd back to the pasture and do this all over again.”
Poncho and I took off on an easy lope east, a gentle wind blowing from the north, sun shining on my shoulders, and the leather saddle creaking a rhythmic melody. I enjoyed riding Poncho. My eyes were eight feet off the ground sitting in the saddle. It was a country penthouse view. With reins relaxed, Poncho took the hint and maintained his speed and direction.
“Find them, Poncho,” I whispered into his ear.
His ears twitched to register my command and he did. We found six cows and five calves in a patch of timber but it was obvious by the nervousness and mooing of a cow that her calf was behind us. We let her go back and followed her to the calf. His leg was caught in a woven wire fence. I didn’t have pliers, so I picked up a broken tree limb and levered the fence wire downward to free its leg. The leg was bleeding but luckily the cut wasn’t too deep.
We brought the six cow-calf pairs through the hill timber and picked up another four pairs along the way. Forty-five minutes later we broke through into open pasture toward Dad’s pickup. The cows started trotting toward him at the sound of corn being thrown from an aluminum scoop.
“Russ,” Dad shouted. “We are missing Sharon and Mary Jo. They should have been through that patch of timber on the south side a long time ago. Ride over there and see if you can find them.”
I took authority over the reins and Poncho sensed it. We galloped the quarter mile to the south timber patch. Both of us were all business. Sharon was a year older than me and Mary Jo was seven but neither had much cattle experience. Sharon was pretty cautious around animals and machinery, so I didn’t think they were hurt, unless something weird had happened to one of them. Poncho and I entered the timber on the south side, crossed a ditch and went up a steep bank, picking our way through low hanging branches. An innocent looking branch moved forward and I ducked my head. The bent branch triggered the release of another hidden branch just as I raised my head. I didn’t see it coming and that one had thorns. One three-inch thorn went through my lip. I closed my right eye, picturing how life would be with only one eye and thanked God it didn’t hit me four inches higher. The blood tasted salty on my tongue. I backed Poncho away, afraid he might step on a thorn. The tree was a honey (thorny) locust tree, a fast-growing, smooth barked tree native to Iowa with single or branched thorns three to eight inches long. Older thorns are hard and brittle and substituted for nails in the past. I weaved Poncho through another pathway in the timber hollering and whistling at regular intervals. Then, I heard a faint, high-pitched, wind-blown shout far away.
Poncho and I broke through the timber just in time to see Sharon and Mary Jo disappear into a gulley in the neighbor’s field. We went through the neighbor’s gate toward the gulley to a small pond below. Sharon was standing on the bank, leaning over the muddy edge and holding onto a small stick that Mary Jo was clinging to. Little Mary Jo was crying. Her boots were sunk below the surface and she was standing with mud up to her thighs. Just beyond her reach was a white-faced brown calf struggling in the mud up to its belly.
I rode Poncho down the bank. I looked at the calf, then Mary Jo, shifted in my saddle and looked upward toward the hill ridge. I placed my elbow on my leg in contemplative thought, paused and narrowed my eyes toward the sun. Sharon looked at me with anticipation.
I was trying to mimic the rugged individualism and no-nonsense image of the Marlboro Man, the iconic cowboy on every package and carton of Marlboro cigarettes. Phillip Morris started the campaign in 1954 to convince men that filtered Marlboro cigarettes was a masculine product to overcome its feminine image. The Marlboro Man was one of the most successful corporate marketing programs in the 20th century. The 45-year campaign helped overcome growing scientific evidence that smoking caused cancer and conveyed that real, salt-of-the-earth men and women weren’t scared of smoking or of science. The campaign propelled Marlboro to the world’s leading brand, a position held since 1972.
“Sharon, we have to leave her here and come back later this evening. Dad is waiting on us. We have to get this calf back to her mother and to the rest of the herd.” I said with my serious, rugged Marlboro man face.
Mary Jo started crying.
“Russ, that’s not funny. Mary Jo is scared enough without you egging her on.”
I winked at Mary Jo and said, “Ok, let’s get you out of there. Just give me a few minutes.”
I rode Poncho back to the timber, found two dead tree limbs on the ground and used the lariat rope to drag them back to the pond. I threw them across the mud bog by Mary Jo and tightrope-walked to her side and pulled on her arm.
“Wait, Russ, don’t pull. My boots are coming off.”
“That’s okay, Mary Jo, I’ll get your boots after I get you out of here.”
I pulled Mary Jo out of the mud hole with two boots missing and a bare right foot, sans sock. I fished the sunken boots and missing sock out of the muck and handed them to Sharon. She rinsed them with pond water and put them back on Mary Jo’s feet.
Getting the calf out was a different matter. The calf was 150 pounds heavier than Mary Jo and had four legs buried instead of one! Besides, the calf was stuck at the far end of the two logs used to reach Mary Jo. I assessed the risk of slipping off the logs and spending the rest of the day with wet mud-caked boots and socks. I removed them, rolled up my pant legs, and appreciated my decision 10 minutes later.
I walked out on the logs, shuffling my feet in short baby steps with one arm acting as a balancing fulcrum and the other holding the lariat rope. The calf’s head was pointed away from me because of his efforts to run away while I rescued Mary Jo. The logs started to sink under the mud from my weight when I approached the end. I thought about grabbing his tail but that would only scare him deeper into the mud bog. I took the lariat rope, put the loop end in my right hand and tossed it with an underhand motion like one would throw a minnow net into the river. The first throw – a miss and almost falling off the logs. The second throw – a body hit and a foot slipping. The third throw – a head shot. Yay! I held the rope with one hand and threw the remaining end to Sharon.
“Sharon and Mary Jo, tighten and pull hard on the rope when I tell you to. We have to turn the calf’s head around to head him back to shore. I’ll hold onto the rope while you pull to move him closer to me.”
And pull, they did. They did such a good job that they pulled me right off the logs and into the mud bog. It wasn’t a graceful dive, more like my first jump off the diving board at the Corning swimming pool. I leaned over with both arms flailing like a windmill, leaping off the sinking logs to keep from belly flopping, and ended up standing thigh high in soft cold mud. It was a liberating experience! No longer did I have to worry about falling off the logs.
“Oh, Russ, I’m so sorry for pulling you off the logs,” said Sharon.
“That’s okay. I should have guessed what would happen but thought I could hold the rope better. Mary Jo, since you are all wet, come out here and pull me out,” I teased.
She backed into Sharon’s leg and hid behind her.
“No, I don’t want to go back in,” she whimpered.
The calf struggled, sinking deeper. All three of us pulled on the rope, and pulled, and pulled.
“Okay, hold it. This is not going to work. Sharon, bring Poncho over here and loop the lariat rope several times around the saddle horn and let Poncho pull him out.”
“Russ, umm… can you come out and do it? That big horse scares me, and I’m not used to him.”
I walked out of the mud leaning at a 45-degree angle and then walked barefoot to the fence, untied Poncho and led him to the pond bank. I stepped on a cocklebur pod and it painfully stuck to the soft part of my foot arch. Poncho and I reached the bank after two more cocklebur stops. I wrapped the rope around Poncho’s saddle horn and led him up the bank. The rope stretched and strained and the saddle creaked in protest. The calf slowly turned around toward the bank.
“Russ, stop! You’re killing the calf,” shouted Sharon.
The calf’s head was dragging in the mud – limp and not moving. He was choked out. I ran back into the mud and waded forward, my arm trying to grab air to help me move through the mucky glue. I shoved my fingers between the rope and calf’s neck and pulled backwards.
“Sharon, you’ve got to move Poncho back to slacken the rope. He’s still trying to pull the calf out by himself. Please, Sharon, stand by Poncho’s head, take the reins in your hands and pull back.”
Sharon did, bless her heart, the rope slackened, and I loosened the loop around its neck. The calf sucked in new air and started thrashing around trying to rear backwards away from the rope.
“Sharon, please take Poncho’s reins and pull forward,” and bravely she did.
I grabbed the calf’s tail and bent it up and backward toward its head to force the calf toward the bank, pulling the lariat loop in my right hand to prevent it from tightening and choking the calf again. Slowly we came out of the mud bog and just before we gained firm footing, I had Sharon stop Poncho and slipped the lariat rope off the calf’s head. Three more struggling steps and the calf stepped into freedom. We heard the calf’s mother bellowing in distant, wind-muffled pleas. Frightened and released from the mud’s mortal grip, the calf bolted and ran in the opposite direction of the neighbor’s gate and its waiting mother.
I found an area of shallow pond water with a firmer bottom and washed mud off my hands, arms, feet, legs and jeans. I was glad I went barefoot and felt pretty good putting on dry socks over cold feet, slipping into dry boots and rolling down my pant legs to keep the wind off my skin.
“Sharon, could you take Mary Jo back to the gate and wait for me until I bring the calf back into our pasture?”
“Yes, but can you point in the direction of the gate? I am completely turned around and lost. What direction is Dad waiting for us?”
“Dad is in this direction,” and I pointed northwest. “But the gate is in this direction over the hill,” and I pointed southwest. “Wait for me there.”
Poncho and I took off in the direction of the freed calf. On top of the hill ridge, I spotted the calf in the southeast corner. It was scared and pushed against the fence that bordered a timbered pasture of over 200 acres. I said a little prayer that he wouldn’t go through the fence, knowing we would never get him back to the herd. I rode in from the opposite direction and moved him along the east-west fence toward the north-south fence that bordered our pasture. The mother cow was waiting on the north-south fence and her bawling directed the calf’s path. Things were going well, until we reached the corner fence. The mother cow stayed in the corner on our pasture side of the fence and the calf refused to be driven away from her. So I galloped through the gate where Sharon and Mary Jo were waiting and drove the cow toward them with the calf following her on the other side of the fence.
“Sharon, move toward me. Don’t let the cow go through the gate and hold her on our side. Don’t let the cow scare you,” I shouted.
I could see the tentativeness in Sharon’s steps when she walked toward the cow. I left the cow 25 yards from the gate and galloped through the gate and circled the calf. The cow stopped momentarily and moved past a cowering Sharon, but not before the calf spotted the open gate and ran into our pasture to join her mother.
“Well, that wasn’t so bad, was it, girls? How would you like to ride the horse while I walk you back to where Dad is?”
I helped them on Poncho just as the cow and calf disappeared over the ridge in the direction where Dad was waiting for us. Walking for 20 minutes was just what I needed. My legs and feet were warm, and my jeans were almost dry. We crested the hill and approached Dad just in time to witness the beginning saga of the “Vaca Loca,” a Spanish nickname the family used for the crazy cow on the cattle drive.
Dad was feeding the herd and everybody else surrounded them to prevent them from scattering. Dad and Eldon counted cows and calves several times. Both thought they counted the correct number of 20 cows and calves and one bull. One cow was acting crazy. It had a wild, shifty look in its eyes. She reared her head often and faked several charges at people.
“That son of a bitch is crazy, watch her,” Dad shouted at us.
My eight-year-old brother, Jeff, was on a terraced slope 25 yards downhill from the crazy cow. Maybe it was his red boots, maybe it was his small size, but she charged. Jeff turned and ran down the hill, his short legs pumping those little red boots as fast as he could. The cow fixated and bored down on Jeff. I handed the reins to Sharon, ran toward Jeff and hollered to distract the cow. The cow was closing so fast I couldn’t reach him in time. Jeff stumbled and went head over heels, just before the cow lowered its head to butt him. She missed him and skidded to a stop on all fours, leaving six-foot trench marks in the moist soil. She faced Jeff to ram him again, this time uphill. I screamed like a banshee, waved my arms and kept running toward Jeff. The crazed cow turned, shook her head, confused, and fortunately decided she didn’t want to take on two of us and ran back toward the herd. Little did we realize that she had other plans for Jeff, Uncle Eldon and me.
“Let’s move them to the road,” hollered Dad.
We closed the loop, Dad led the herd with the pickup toward the exit gate. He stopped on the road and noisily scooped corn in piles on the road. The cows came running, the calves straggling.
“Keep those calves close or they will bolt,” Dad ordered.
I closed on the bull who was lagging behind. He was an enigma. He wanted to keep close to the herd but he didn’t want to be bullied in front of his harem and used some blustering head movements to show his leadership and power. His looks backed up his bluster. He had a massive head and shoulders, but it was those two horns that signaled trouble. One horn angled up and one horn angled downward and forward. He was a bull that could gore you to the right, to the left, and to the front. I was surprised that he didn’t have a horn on his tail so he could gore you from behind! He turned and faked a charge when I approached him with Poncho. Poncho used a four-legged stop and shifted into reverse. I lurched forward but stayed on the saddle. We waited, unmoving. The bull changed direction and returned to the herd on the north side next to the creek running through the corner. I could feel Poncho relax under me and my own legs relaxing too. The crisis was averted, but not forgotten.
We drove the cows and calves through the gate and onto the road, except the bull. He crossed the creek and was standing in the corner. Nobody wanted to cross the creek to get him. The water was deep enough to flow over boots. I didn’t want to take Poncho because… if I was thrown off, Poncho could run faster than me. And you know what happens to the slowest runner if a bull is chasing you.
Dad motioned me over to the fence and asked me to get the bull and bring it back across the creek. I told him what happened earlier and that was something I really didn’t want to do with Poncho.
“Chicken shit,” he called me.
“That’s okay, Dad, I can handle that label. Look at that bull over there, daring us to come to him. I want to live another day.”
So we traded places. Dad got on Poncho, something he didn’t do often. You could tell he was just a little awkward riding him. He got to the creek edge and assumed Poncho was going to walk across it. But Poncho apparently didn’t want to get his feet and legs wet so he coiled his hind legs and rocketed over the water. Dad rocked backward, forward and up, rising off the saddle and momentarily sitting on air. His feet landed on the creek’s edge, spraying two-foot-high jets of water. He leaned backwards with flailing arms, lost his balance and unceremoniously planted his butt at the bottom of the stream.
“God…” he started to cuss with furrowed brow and angry cheek muscles.
“Bless America…” We finished with restrained chuckles.
Poncho came back to me. The bull crossed the creek and came back through the gate. All of us and the herd were waiting for Dad on the road.
“Good job, Dad. You’re quite a horseman. You brought that bull right out of there. Say, did you see any fish swimming around you?” I asked and the rest of us laughed.
“Chicken shit,” he repeated to me. Then he pointed to the road ditch and said, “Dammit, who’s watching the cows?”
We turned in time to see six lead cows and their calves jump the neighbor’s half-buried fence and run toward green grass. The rest of the herd followed. Poncho and I turned north on the road and crossed the narrow, iron-beam and plank-floor bridge to the neighbor’s field gate. The iron bridge was typical of the road bridges built in the 1930s and 1940s as motorized vehicles took over the family transportation needs from the horse and buggy era. Towering above the plank floor on each side of the bridge were eight-feet-tall and 10-inch-wide steel support beams. Beams were riveted together in ordered patterns of triangles, squares, and parallelograms with rows of one-inch rounded rivet heads. The entire steel structure was coated with a patina of red-brown rust. The bridge was country art for the observant and a circus playground for children practicing their climbing and trapeze skills. The bridge taught me in my boyhood that I would not be making a living by working at heights. Dad followed me with a pickup-load of walkers to help head off the herd and bring them back to the road. The bridge planks rumbled like deep thunder rolling off valley hills. At the other end, Dad grumbled that it was going to be difficult to get cows and calves to cross that narrow road bridge and head south on the road.
Cows act crazy on green grass. They had eaten our pasture down and Dad had been supplementing them with corn for several weeks. He fed them near the entry gate to train the cattle and make it easier to move them to the road on the day of the cattle drive. The cows, now in the neighbor’s pasture, kicked up their heels and reached for a mouthful of grass and ran to the next spot and repeated the process – run, munch, run, munch. It took us a quarter mile to get around the herd. Little by little, we herded them closer to the road where Dad poured shelled corn to entice them to come. Cows are always the first to go through the gate. The trick was to close ranks fast enough not to scare calves but encourage them to follow their mothers. Without their mother, they panic and bolt back into the pasture when we close around them. Luck was on our side. They all came out of the neighbor’s pasture and onto the road. But Dad’s premonition was true, we couldn’t get the cows to cross the bridge.
Dad sorted out the oldest cow and her calf and told me to drive her across the bridge so others would follow. The cow instinctively moved to the center of the bridge and haltingly stepped on the imaginary middle line of the bridge. Her head moved up and down, like she was opening her eyes to see and closing her eyes to walk. The calf stayed right behind her mother and bumped into her hind quarters while she walked. Slowly another cow-calf pair followed the same way, and another, until all had crossed.
With the narrow bridge behind them, the herd jogged forward on the road. Soon Mom appeared and parked on the hill ahead, waiting for us. Her head was barely visible above the steering wheel of the big Buick. Her still silhouette suggested that our chef was ready to serve the fall feast. We were ready too. We had forgotten that it was past noon and that we were starving.
“There’s Mom with our lunch, but we can’t stop here to eat,” Dad said. “Drive the herd another mile and a half. We will stop the herd there and eat where the road fences are better. Eldon, park your car and you, Steve, and Jeff, come with me in the pickup. I want you to guard the neighbor’s road gates ahead.”
Dad weaved the pickup through the herd and disappeared over the hill. The rest of us drove. Cows trotted first and then settled into a walk. The lead cow was a white-faced, Angus-Hereford cross that was in her prime. Not surprisingly, she was the lead cow for the whole drive.
Soon, the herd settled into an easy, rhythmic pace. Relaxed on Poncho, I discovered the motion around me. Several hawks lazily floated in the blue sky and drifted under billowy white clouds. Energetic sparrows played hide-and-seek in the fence rows. A meadowlark was perched on a gently swaying bull thistle. His yellow breast, crowned with a black neck scarf, glowed in the sun’s rays. Head and chest lifted upward, he serenaded us with rapid, flute-like notes. The singer gracefully bowed to the audience, breezes moved through vegetation and whistled their applause. It was a five-second, virtuoso performance in nature’s outdoor concert hall and I had free tickets. The mooing and regular clop, clop sound of cow hooves lulled us into marching to the beat and sounds of the animal band. I turned in my saddle and looked back at the creek bordered by cottonwoods and oaks and imagined waving goodbye to Chief Mahaska and his braves. I turned back to the herd, my lips whispering the words – “Herd them, chase them, cuss them. Keep those cows a-goin’…”
Watch for part 2 of The Great Mullen Cattle Drive in October.
Thanks to the Mullen family for the photos.
Russ Mullen is Professor Emeritus of Agronomy, Iowa State University. He was a scientist and educator during his 41-year university career. He taught crop science and authored numerous articles in scientific journals, abstracts, and proceedings, and semi-technical articles on crop and seed production, crop quality, and agronomic education. His textbook, Systems – Food, Fuel, Feed, Fiber – Fifth Edition, Kendall Hunt was adopted by many agricultural-based universities and community colleges in the U.S. His greatest enjoyment at the university came from working with students and the freedom to pursue teaching and research innovation.
The author grew up during the 1950s, 60s and 70s, in a family of 10 with a devout Catholic mother and an agnostic father, on a diversified farm in southwest Iowa. It was an environment that nourished his love of agriculture, outdoors, stewardship of natural resources, and innovative problem-solving approaches – experiences that directly influenced his life as a university scientist. He owns a 120-acre farm inherited from his parents. He believes good stewards of farmland manage and safeguard agricultural landscapes to provide biological diversity and healthier ecosystems. He enjoys creative endeavors and inventing weird metal things in his shop.
This chapter highlights his family’s efforts in driving cattle for 12 miles on gravel and dirt roads during the 1950s and 1960s. Neighbors and family dubbed it The Great Mullen Cattle Drive – a cattle drive now extinct in the Midwest because most roadside fences have disappeared. It’s a story of a farm family working together to meet challenges, solving problems, sharing laughs, and building memories.