Big mules needed to haul coal up from City Front|GUEST COLUMNIST

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Part eight

During the Depression, many folks in the town of Vicksburg burned coal for heat and cooking. Some still burned wood. Two types of coal were available, very hard and glossy black anthracite and somewhat softer bituminous coal. The various kinds had fanciful names appended, drawn from the particular vein in the Appalachians that produced them.

If you asked for the same kind of coal by name every time you ordered, you could be assured of the same clean-burning quality. Poor quality coal produced lots of cinder-like clinkers.

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All this leads up to describing the carts used to haul the coal. They were huge two-wheel contraptions drawn by the biggest mules you would ever see. The mules were trained to back the carts until the tailgate stood over an open coal-cellar door. The driver would open the tailgate and release snaphook catches that held the mules’ harness to the shafts that extended forward from the box of the cart. No longer held down by the weight of the mules, the cart would tip up and the coal would slide into the cellar.

Interestingly, a biography of Louis “Satchmo” Armstrong relates that as a teenager, he became the breadwinner for his family in New Orleans by loading coal carts, driving them to the home of the customer and shoveling the coal into a pile. There were no cellars in New Orleans. His carts held a ton of coal. He could do five loads a day. Perhaps that is how he developed the lung capacity to hit those extremely high notes.

Oh, how I fell for the bullfrog farms that were advertised in magazines. They promised incredible returns for little money. Just keep a pond filled and let the frogs increase.

One of my older brothers punctured that balloon for me by asking, “How in the heck do you plan to keep those frogs in the pond?  Do you know how far the big ones can jump?”

‘The driver would open the tailgate and release snaphook catches that held the mules’ harness to the shafts that extended forward from the box of the cart.’

In an earlier column, I mentioned the fishery on the north end of City Front. They bought and sold frogs, fish, big turtles and the occasional alligator. I was there when two octogenarian brothers brought in a yellow catfish that weighed 129 pounds, which they claimed was a record. He had a head as big as a bushel basket.

City Front was also part of my ice-cream route. I rode a bicycle with an insulated box slung over my shoulder and the weight resting on the rear fender of the bike. When steamboats came in I made pretty good money selling ice-cream sandwiches and Eskimo bars to the deckhands. But I showed up one day just as a workboat loaded to the gunwales with thugs moored next to a steamboat loaded with bales of cotton. The thugs commenced beating the stevedores with billy clubs. I thought that discretion was the better part of valor and retreated to the top of the floodwall to watch the action. The boss of the thugs was flourishing a pistol that looked like a cannon, but he never fired it.

My oldest brother never told my parents about one place where I sold a lot of ice cream.

There was a sporting house a few doors up from the gate to the floodwall. I was 12 years of age and my voice hadn’t changed, so I was too young to be hormone-driven. I knew the afternoon hour when the ladies of the night began to stir and come out on the balcony. But to get the ice cream up to them and collect my money, I had to get off my bike and tote my ice-cream box upstairs and through the corridors to get to the door to the balcony. That’s where my brother found me. No, he wasn’t a customer; he was there helping his boss run his insurance debit, but it didn’t lessen his shock at finding his kid brother hustling ice cream to ladies of ill repute.

Showboats would come to the waterfront on occasion. Their steam calliopes would signal their presence, and they usually sounded around the dinner hour. I couldn’t afford the performances but loved the sound. It carried through the bottoms all the way out to the Franco place. I never dreamed that more than a half century later I would be lecturing on the Delta Queen, Mississippi Queen and the American Queen and enjoying close-up the calliope music that signaled their arrival at and departure from Vicksburg.

Jim Wilson, an honorary Master Gardener in eight states, was a presenter for 10 years on PBS’s “Victory Garden” and is the author of 10 gardening books. He now lives in Missouri and in this series remembers his youth in Vicksburg. Mail reaches him at 4200 E. Richland Road, Columbia, MO. 65201 and e-mail reaches him at