Tuesday, April 15, 2014

M is for Muleskinner

by Kim Van Sickler

[Kim's posts will all relate to her MG historical fiction novel with a paranormal twist: MuleskinnerHere's the pitch: An extraordinary canal dog gives twelve-year-old mule driver, Clay, the conviction to fight against a highly suspect Indenture agreement his pa supposedly signed...right before Pa was found swinging from a tree above Lonesome Lock.]

A muleskinner is a person who drives mules. Back in the Ohio Canal era (1825-1913) a team of 2-3 mules were hitched in tandem (one behind the other) to pull canal boats (freighters) filled with supplies from any combination of distances between Portsmouth (south) to Cleveland (north), about 310 miles. 

Muleskinner walking beside his mules
 In my book Muleskinner, Clay has been helping drive mules for the freighter Bonnie Lass for six years already. At twelve years old, he is now a seasoned mule driver. He spends all day on his feet tending to the mules or walking with them. His biggest concerns are the condition of the mules, the weather, and the waits to lock through at the areas where the water level has to be either raised or lowered so boats can proceed either upstream or downstream. It's a physically grueling, frequently boring, oftentimes dangerous life. 

Did you know that President James Garfield worked as a muleskinner on the Ohio Canal? After he fell in the water for the 14th time, he developed a malaria-like sickness (referred to as the ague) that forced him to retire from the canals. His quality of life drastically improved once he did!


  1. Interesting the different jobs people used to have, including President Garfield.

  2. Interesting - I've never heard this term before. And I also didn't know about Garfield. Learning two new things today thanks to your post. :)

  3. Obviously there was a lot about the job that made one sick.

  4. I didn't know that Garfield fact. Thanks, Kim.

  5. That image reminds me so much of the canals in England. When I was in 8th grade, we had a week long fieldtrip traveling the canals. While the canal boats are now powered, we still could walk the same trails the horses did before us. We still got to help with the manual locks. :)

    Jamie Dement (LadyJai)
    My A to Z
    Caring for My Veteran

  6. Ironic how sickness can turn your life around in a positive way. Yeah back then six years at age twelve would be considered seasoned. Today in the West it would be child abuse. Funny how times change labor laws.

  7. I almost feel like I can call someone a muleskinner and make it sound like I'm calling them a bad name. :)

    1. At the very least it sounds like someone who kills and skins mule hides.

  8. I, probably along with several others, thought that muleskinner had to do with skinning mules. Either way, it was no doubt a tough life.

  9. he started when he was 6 years old! Unbelievable how our society has changed. This is a child labor book too!

  10. I love the twists writers are taking w/ historical writing. I recently read a novel in verse about the Panama Canal, "Silver People." via A to Z Challenge www.evolvingenglishteacher.blogspot.com