It was still raining as Paul Dunn watched the line of mules in the draft at halter class trot into the Nowell Smith arena Friday morning.
Wet weather had rolled into Benson the night before and everything was soaked — the corral had been churned into mud, large puddles dotted Chamber Park and there were just as many people wearing rain slickers as cowboy hats.
All in all, a damp start to the mule competition at the 66th Annual Mule Days. Mr. Dunn, owner of Mule City Feeds and one of the organizers of the event, looked out from under his tent at the gray sky and chuckled.
“This is nothing compared to when (Hurricane) Hugo came through in 1989. We started everything an hour late and it was still raining like crazy, but we dealt with it,” he said.
As if on cue, competition announcer Don Stroud — a man who has never missed Mule Days since the event began in 1949 — boomed over the speaker system. “You’ve got to love it to be out there in the arena today, folks.”
The morning showers were certainly an inconvenience, but Mr. Dunn and Mr. Stroud were right — people love Mule Days and they dealt with the rain. All eight classes during the competition slogged into the arena to meet the judges like it was a sunny 75 degrees.
Aside from the occasional mule protest, seemingly from the miniature class, the competition carried on without a hitch. Draft mule at halter, matched pair draft, saddle mule at halter, miniature mule at halter, matched pair miniature, donkey jennies and geldings, donkey jacks and mules 2-years-and-younger all produced winners. The overcast conditions did little to conceal the exemplary animals of each category.
“If you come to Benson in late September and you don’t like mules and horses — you’re in the wrong place,” said Mr. Stroud.
During his coverage of the Mule Judging, Mr. Stroud shared anecdotes and joked with each contestant like Sanford’s Phil Stone, a multiple grand champion winner whose entire family is involved in the competition each year.
However, it wasn’t Mr. Stone or Wayne Hussey or Phil Hudson or any number of Mule Days regulars who managed to earn the 2015 Grand Champion title. This year’s top mule was a relative newcomer — 3-year-old Paco Beuno, shown by Oxford’s Amy Privett.
It may have been a bit overwhelming for Paco when the photographers rushed in, but he stood planted in the mud as Jeremy Smith, grandson of Mule Days co-founder Nowell Smith, helped Mr. Stroud drape the famous red blanket over him — reading “66TH MULE DAYS GRAND CHAMPION” — in large yellow letters.
Following the barrage of camera flashes and congratulations, it was time for the champ to get kissed — perhaps the most unique of the many Mule Days traditions. Benson’s beauty queens have often been apprehensive in kissing the champion mule, but the newly-crowned Little Miss Benson Aubrey Davis, Miss Benson Outstanding Teen Carlisle Carroll and Miss Benson Crystal Byrd didn’t hesitate to plant a smooch on Paco.
After the fanfare, the champ seemed excited making his way to a dry trailer and some lunch.
“Mule Days is just fun,” said Ms. Privett leading Paco out of the arena. “He’s young, so I haven’t shown him much. I’m just glad people think he’s as pretty as I do. “I’m very proud, he did a good job,” she said. It was her second Mule Days.
The rain continued Saturday, but despite the showers the annual parade still packed downtown Benson — as it does every year. Crowds lined the sidewalks and cheered from underneath umbrellas as the procession of more than 100 entries made its way along Main Street.
Ms. Privett and Paco Bueno were at the head of the line, followed by the 2015 Grand Marshals Larry and Lena Massengill.
Excited children lined up to see the tractors and off-road vehicles that followed, while several local dance troupes tapped and strutted up the street. The high school marching bands were also in full force with South Johnston and West Johnston trumpeting a loud cadence along the route.
Beauty queens, politicians, mules, local businesses, more mules, horses, clowns, classic cars and mascots continued the parade for over an hour — until a cavalry of what appeared to be every horse in the state brought up the rear.
The familiar country western tune “Back in the Saddle” played as the last of the equine closed the gap to end this year’s parade. Story and photos courtesy The Daily Record