‘His wits and his words’: Strand Theatre to feature films about famed mule trader

Published 1:18 pm Saturday, June 29, 2024

An event coming to the Strand Theatre in July will feature two short films about Vicksburg’s Ray Lum, a local mule trader who made a name for himself in the early 20th century. The kicker: The films will be presented as part of a continuing “quest” to tell Lum’s story from Vicksburg native Dr. William R. “Bill” Ferris. 

Daniel Boone, program presenter at the Strand, said Ferris will return to the River City for the films’ debut, which represents the latest chapter in his mission to highlight Lum’s life – a journey that has continued for Ferris for more than 50 years.

“The Strand Theatre will host a special event featuring (the) two short films about Lum and a conversation with the filmmakers and guests who are connected to the films,” Boone said. “There was a time in the first half of the 20th century when mules were essential for transportation, agricultural, and construction work. Here in Vicksburg, Ray Lum was a mule trader. It was his occupation and his way of life. In other words, he lived by his wits and his words. As automobiles and tractors and other heavy equipment became accepted in other parts of the country, the mule remained a valued tool and partner here in the South for a number of years. After the mule was no longer needed by many, Mr. Lum auctioned cattle and horses at his livestock barn.”  

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According to “Ray Lum: Mule Trader,” a book in Lum’s own words compiled by Ferris, “Ray Lum was a larger-than-life character; a natural storyteller, which served him well in his efforts to sell livestock. He believed it was important to always tell the truth even if it might sometimes be necessary to ‘handle it with care.’”

In the introduction to the book, Ferris explained it was his own father’s advice that jumpstarted his fascination with Lum.

“In the late ‘60s while a graduate student in folklore at the University of Pennsylvania, I rediscovered and understood better my culture as I filmed and recorded black blues musicians, storytellers, and folk artists from the Mississippi Delta. By 1970 I was teaching English at Jackson State College, and my father suggested I record Lum, whom he felt was unique as a storyteller. I took my father’s advice and in 1970 began a quest for Lum and through him my own identity.”  

In collaboration with Judy Peiser and Bobby Taylor, Ferris, a former chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, co-editor of the award-winning Encyclopedia of Southern Culture and author of several other books, made a film about Lum in 1974. Also entitled “Ray Lum: Mule Trader,” the 18-minute film will be shown at the Strand, along with a new film entitled “Okay, Mr. Ray,” which utilizes footage shot by Ferris and which was directed by Ashley Melzer, a young producer, filmmaker and writer based in Durham, N.C.  

Boone said Ferris and Melzer will appear at the Strand to talk about their films, and will be joined in conversation by Henry Harris, the son of Squire Harris, who is featured in the film, and Betsy Lum Lipscomb, Ray Lum’s niece.

Kelle Barfield, owner of Vicksburg’s Lorelei Books, will also contribute to the event.

“I have stock of ‘Ray Lum: Mule Trader’ at Lorelei Books, which I will have at the Strand on July 13 for those who would like to purchase an autographed copy,” she said. “I plan to donate profits from sales to the Strand.”

The event will be held Saturday, July 13, at 7 p.m. at the Strand, located at 717 Clay Street in downtown Vicksburg.  

The program, which is supported by the Mississippi Humanities Council – which also helped fund the new films – is free and open to the public.

More about Ferris and Lum:

Ray Lum (1891—1977) was a mule trader, auctioneer, fast-talker, friend to many, and all around American original. Growing up in poverty in rural Mississippi, Ray soon found that he could make more money trading than working in a store. He became a savvy bargainer and businessman, whose tall tales wooed even the folks he beat out of money. He had a home and auction house in Vicksburg, Mississippi and traveled from South Dakota to Mexico trading mainly mules and horses — sometimes literally out of the back of his Cadillac. “He is known all over cow country for his honest fair dealing and gentlemanly attitude,” reported one Texas newspaper. “A letter addressed to him anywhere in Texas probably would be delivered.”

William Ferris, who himself grew up on a farm just outside of Vicksburg, met Ray Lum as a child. Ferris never forgot Ray’s way with words and returned as an adult to try and capture the special quality of Ray’s storytelling and wisdom. Ray is the subject of Ferris and Judy Peiser’s 1972 film, “Ray Lum: Mule Trader.” He is also the focus of Ferris’s 1992 book “Mule Trader: Ray Lum’s Tales of Horses, Mules, and Men,” published by University of Mississippi Press and which features a forward by Eudora Welty.