Shaffer: Colfax blacksmith forges 'bailout program' with DNC mule hooks

josh.shaffer@newsobserver.comAugust 19, 2012 

  • Want a mule hook? You can order Dillon’s mule hooks for $25 each by writing him at 1890 Cude Road, Colfax, NC 27235, or at blsth@bellsouth.net. He knocks the price down to $20 for larger orders.

— From his cinder block blacksmith’s shop, Don Dillon hammers a red-hot iron bar into the shape of a comically exaggerated mule – his nose jutting out like a mailbox , his ears bent and waving like a bug’s antennae.

In a week’s time, Dillon can turn out 40 of these decorative beasts, each one fitted with a hook at the bottom that’s perfect for hanging a hat.

But mostly, Dillon would like all Democrats to notice that mules are practically donkeys and that North Carolina will be crawling with donkeys come Sept. 4, and a custom-made donkey hook might make a dandy convention souvenir.

“This is my bailout program,” said the 70-year-old smith, fingers smeared black. “A mule lends itself to caricature, so I don’t have to be perfect.”

For 30 years, Dillon has earned a living by heating iron bars in a coal fire and bending them over an anvil – a rare and back-aching business – but the Guilford County craftsman says it beats growing tobacco – his family’s trade.

You might have seen Dillon demonstrating at the State Fair. He used to make lamps. Then the furniture factory shut down. So now he makes mule hooks – mixing humor and politics with lop-eared metal.

One version comes equipped with a crank, which Dillon calls a wind-up key for a liberal Democrat. You’re supposed to insert the mule end where the sun doesn’t shine. Another serves as a toilet-paper holder. Another hook combines the ears of a mule with a pachyderm’s trunk.

“This is a donkey-phant,” Dillon explained. “That’s for the undecided voter, the split-ticket man, the quiet man that don’t make a lot of racket. I made a few elephant hooks, but couldn’t sell any of them.”

Dillon grew up on this tobacco farm outside Greensboro. The date of his birth is recorded in pencil on the boards of an old farm house, written in his father’s hand along with other milestones:

Sept. 1960: Took boy to Boone to go to college

March 1963: Boy gets married

March 1970: Got a new Ford 2000 tractor.

Stories spill out of Dillon while he punches a nostril into a mule’s nose, or stamps a pair of eyebrows onto its iron forehead.

Sit in his shop for an hour, and you’ll hear about the man who drove a Cub tractor 19 miles to the nearest liquor store, or the time Dillon traded one of his handmade adzes (an axlike woodworking tool) for a jug of apple liquor – even though he doesn’t drink.

He explains that Colfax didn’t offer much entertainment for a young boy. He and his chums would fight over the latest copy of Field & Stream to hit the public library. He carries a B-flat harmonica in the front pocket of his overalls. He earned his college tuition money by raising calves.

So he doesn’t believe in bailouts, stimulus packages or politicians who want to remedy hard times with a truckload of tax money. Elephant or mule, they’re all jackasses to Dillon.

“It’s been going downhill since Eisenhower,” he said. “All of them got high ideas and somebody else’s money. The word ‘poly’ means many-sided, and a ‘tick’ is a parasite. Poly-ticks.”

His mule idea came by way of Ira de Koven, a master blacksmith who made the rhino-shaped jungle gym that now stands outside the Asheville Art Museum.

But mule hooks really picked up speed when Dillon attended the Mule Day festival in Columbia, TN.

“There’s people who have never seen a mule hook before and they went at them like a feeding frenzy,” he said. “I sold all my three-gallon buckets.”

By contrast, working Mule Days in Benson is a bust for a blacksmith.

“Ain’t no money in Benson,” Dillon said, “unless you’re selling beer or insulated saddle bags.”

He gets bored sometimes, making mules all day, alone in his blacksmith’s shop. But hard work is the only bailout Dillon knows, and a trip to the bank will cure boredom.

jshaffer@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4818

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