The May 2005 feature, “Legend of the Eastern High Sierras,” profiled longtime packer and mule man Bob Tanner. Here’s more about Bob, who’s owned California’s Red’s Meadow Pack Station since 1960.
Photo by Lee Raine
On the Subject of Mules
Bob has interesting observations about mules.
“As time went on, mules in California became smaller,” he states. “Few mules were used for farming or mining any more, so there wasn’t much demand for big mules. We needed to find a source of draft-cross mules and started looking in the southeastern United States, where mules were still used to pull a plow. We found a source for Belgian draft-cross mules in Tennessee and have purchased our replacement mules there ever since.”
Bob says there’s a fine line between a big mule and an athletic mule.
“You don’t want a mule that’s too tall because you need to lift everything you place on its back,” he explains. “Thoroughbred-cross mules won’t work. They’re too nervous and high strung. Tough and wiry Mexican-style mules sometimes can be bad to kick and, therefore, are dangerous to be around. You need a cold-blooded mule with some bone in his legs, (one) that won’t panic if you get in a storm on the trail. If a mule is too large and heavy, his front end won’t hold up in these mountains.”
Bob describes his theories and methods of feeding his pack stock.
“The way I feed my mules and horses is very important in running a pack station,” he says. “I hay my animals once a day, in the evening. We put out plenty of hay in feed bunks so that all the animals get their fill. I like to see some hay left over in the corral in the morning. This tells me that even the weaker horses and mules within the social structure and pecking order also have had something to eat.”
“We only grain our animals in the morning before they go out on the trail,” he continued. “If we grain them at night, these animals will start running off the mountain at the end of the day to get to the grain. This could be the start and cause of ‘barn-sour’ behavior.”
Bob shares some of his thoughts about load weight.
“The amount of weight I can put on a pack mule depends on the shape he’s in. When the summer season starts, we don’t overload our animals. As the mules and horses get legged up from working on the trail every day, we can increase the weight of the loads. If a mule is difficult to get along with, we can increase his load and he’ll soon go along with no problems. As general rule, each pack mule carries 125 pounds. We pack our mules and ride our horses.”
“I’ve used all types of pack gear through the years,” says Bob. “This Sierra country is sawbuck-packsaddle country. I use sawbuck packsaddles and ‘mantee’ (bundle) the loads, (which are) lashed down with a lash cinch. I also use packsaddles that have large leather pannier bags. These bags outlast the canvas-type bag and are larger. I have these special-made.”
Bishop Mule Days
Beginning in 1970, Bishop, California, has held a Mule Days gathering during Memorial Day weekend to present the world’s largest and best mule celebration. Bob played a big role in starting this event.
“During the summer of 1969, Leo Porterfield, a mule man, and I had a discussion at Red’s Meadow,” Bob says, “about mules and great memories of pack-station life. I said to Leo, ‘Wouldn’t it be great if more people could see what really goes on at a pack station?’ Leo agreed, saying there was beginning to be a lot of interest in mules around the country, with a number of outstanding mules having been raised.”
According to Bob, this meeting led to the formation of committee composed of eight mule men from the Bishop area.
The winter of 1969 – ’70 was a big snow year in the Sierras, with snow still on the high-country trails in August. The packing business was tough, and packers needed something positive to show their bankers. The mule committee decided to bring some of the pack-station hilarity, fine mules and the packing and shoeing skills of those who worked in the Sierras to town. At the time, no other event was scheduled in the Bishop area for Memorial Day weekend.
Bob and others solicited donations to help pay for trophies, ribbons, horseshoes and event posters from Bishop merchants. From this small start, Mule Days has since grown to become a premier annual event attended by people from all over the world.