Mule Day is a beloved tradition in Maury County. For decades, hundreds of thousands of people have flocked to the town of Columbia to celebrate one of agriculture’s hardest working animals. But the pandemic was the “whoa Nelly!” that ground the festivities to a halt.
“We know in elected office that any decision you make is going to be met with some ridicule,” says Columbia Mayor Chaz Molder, “and certainly that was no different here.”
As the leader of ‘Mule Town,’ it fell to Molder to cancel the event in 2020. And for the most part, the community accepted it. But this year’s cancellation hasn’t gone over well with a community that is yearning for a return to normalcy.
To a degree, Molder understands. He’s been to 32 mule days and calls himself its “biggest fan.”
The four-day event has a parade, competitions for the best auctioneer, and performances from the local clogging group, The Mule Town Stompers. He knows the community and the local economy feel like they need this.
“But, what I have even more conviction about than my love and support of Mule Day is conviction about doing the right thing during the global pandemic that we are currently in,” he says.
Molder says cancelling Mule Day 2021 was a grueling decision. He grappled to find the right time to bring back the community’s prized event. Would enough people be vaccinated come April? Would travel still be dangerous?
At first he wanted to postpone it. But the event’s usual organizers helped him reach his decision, and he decided not to grant a mass gathering permit.
And as he expected, the backlash was swift.
“My instant reaction was, we can’t let this happen,” says resident Jodi Hoffman.
‘Save Our Asses 2021’
After she heard the news, Hoffman started a Facebook group, aptly called Save Mule Day, which has grown beyond 8,000 members.
In it, people started selling T-shirts. They’re emblazoned with slogans, like ‘Save our asses 2021’ and ‘COVID and politics can kiss my ass.’ (A mule is technically the son or daughter of an ass, but that’s perhaps beside the point.)
“We need to make our voices be heard,” Hoffman says. “Because at the end of the day, during the presidential election my voice couldn’t be heard. So this is something for my town, this is something for my community.”
Over the last few months, members have gotten a front row seat to the challenges that come along with trying to plan an event through Facebook, like nailing down a location, performers and sponsors.
Not to mention — they don’t have the blessing of the official group that has put on Mule Day for decades.
A Mule Day by any other name
The Maury County Bridle and Saddle Club owns the Mule Day brand. Louise Mills, with the group, says if someone else tried to throw an unofficial Mule Day, it might even lead to a lawsuit.
“We don’t appreciate them — just because we couldn’t have a Mule Day or didn’t think we could do it safely — coming in and saying, ‘Well we’re gonna do one anyway,’ ” Mills says.
Mills says Mule Day has a historic reputation to uphold. It dates back to the 1800s. It’s a grand event, drawing people from across the country. What if people come to this upstart event expecting the traditional Mule Day, only to be disappointed and never come back?
Plus, Mills says the fledgling Mule Day might have the unintended consequence of undermining the next official one.
“We do have one major sponsor, they do a lot for us, and so they let us know that if we did continued with Mule Day then they would no longer choose to be our sponsor,” she says.
Cart before the mule
All of this uncertainty has been percolating for months, with the event’s traditional spring date drawing closer.
Meanwhile, a different leader has been quietly championing the community’s stubborn love of Mule Day — Maury County Mayor Andy Ogles. It fits that Ogles, who has opposed state pandemic restrictions, wants this event to come back.
He wouldn’t talk for this story. Then on a random Wednesday night, without warning, Ogles took to Facebook and announced there would be “MuleFest” in downtown Columbia, May 28-29. There would be a concert with country star Trace Adkins, and even a parade.
But the big reveal leaves a lot of questions. The event still doesn’t have permits, the date now coincides with Memorial Day weekend, and there’s no word on how actual mules are going to be involved.
Initial reaction to the announcement has been mixed, with even some supporters wondering if the organizers have put the cart before the mule.