The mud was ankle-deep, but that didn’t stop Benson, and it certainly didn’t stop the mules.
This year’s Benson Mule Days weathered rain and then muddy grounds, but the festival, now 67 years old, was as good as ever, organizers said.
“Mule Days weekend was one of the best in years,” said Loretta Byrd, president of the Benson Area Chamber of Commerce, the event’s organizer. “While it did rain on Thursday, the rest of the weekend weather was great.”
Byrd figures about 25,000 people attended the events this year, up from about 15,000 the rainy year before. “The rodeos, parade and carnival were well attended,” she said.
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The four-day festival celebrates the hard-working beast of burden, and on Friday, mules took center stage, taking part in contests and competing for the title of grand champion and the right to lead the next day’s parade. They came in all sizes, from miniatures to draft mules, and all had been meticulously groomed. In search of a grand champion, a judge looked for straightness of legs, length of neck, soundness of gait and sleekness of coat, forgiving the inevitable mud on the legs.
The mules competed individually but often appeared as pairs; several mules got upset when separated from their partners and started to bolt from their handlers. A few succeeded, leading their handlers on slippery chases through the mud to the good-natured laughter of the crowd.
Many of the handlers were veterans of the mule-showing circuit, but others were first-timers like 12-year-old Develyn Johnson of Benson.
“It’s my first year, but it’s really fun,” Johnson said, patting Bonne, a 16-year-old mule that competed in the coon jumping event, where mules clear hurdles from a standing start. The competition takes its name from the bygone practice of jumping fences while chasing racoons.
“I really want to do it again,” Johnson said.
Another contest had mules in costume. Among this year’s entrants: Donald Trump, Minnie Mouse and the Lone Ranger.
Jennifer Hussey of Seagrove, who showed several mules, is no stranger to Benson’s Mule Days. “I’ve been showing mules since I could walk,” she said, laughing.
Lindsey Goode’s 6-year-old mule, Goldie, drew a lot of attention for her good looks. “She’s got pretty special markings,” Goode said, pointing to the tiger stripes on Goldie’s golden legs and the cross-shaped area on her back.
Goode, of Statesville, said she’s been showing mules for about seven years. She showed horses for a long time before that.
“They’re just so smart,” Goode said of mules. “They’re smarter than you think, and they’re more fun. People think they’re stubborn, but they’re just too smart for us.”
Mules wore colorful halters and lead ropes, while many handlers wore glitter makeup, color-coordinated outfits, boots and bejeweled hats. Women outnumbered men in many of the events.
“It’s really a girls’ show this year,” Goode said, laughing.
Byrd, the chamber president, said Friday’s mule events had the most entrants in years, but it was 7-year-old draft mule Josey who walked away with the title of grand champion. That earned Josey kisses from Miss Benson Avery West and Junior Miss Benson Emerson Bunn, who tread carefully through the mud in their tiaras and sashes. Little Miss Benson Amber Hernandez delivered a kiss too, a Mule Days tradition, but needed a lift to reach Josey.
“Good girl,” Hernandez said quietly to Josey before kissing her gently on the nose to loud applause from the more than 100 people in the arena’s stands.
“I was a little nervous because she was so big,” Thomas said of kissing Josey. “I’ve never kissed a mule before, but she was really nice.”
Tara Murrow and her 8-year-old daughter, Ava, came out to see the mules on Friday like they do every year. “It’s tradition,” Murrow said. “You can’t miss Mule Days if you’re in Johnston County. There’s nothing like it anywhere else.”
And now that the 2016 Mule Days has come to a close, plans are already in the works for next year’s events.
“We appreciate all of our volunteers, Town of Benson staff, the Benson Police Department and JoCo Sheriff’s Department for all of their hard work,” Byrd said. “Now onto to next year.”
For more information on Mule Days, go to bensonmuledays.com.
Abbie Bennett: 910-849-2827; @AbbieRBennett