Bank Mules

Bank Mule

Coal mining played an astonishing role in West Terre Haute’s history.  Coal was the primary reason its population grew tenfold between 1900 and 1920, and it began to prosper.  And its demise left thousands out of work and started the decline of the town.

My grandfather started working in the St. Mary’s coalmine when he was 14.  One of his jobs was to help drive the bank mules.  Bank mules (the term likely originated with the mules who pulled boats along canal banks) were used to haul the coal dug from the banks.  They were hitched to large coalbins that ran along   tracks that conveyed the coal to the surface.  Bank mules, then, became part of Grandpa’s  psyche.  He grew to hate and love them.  They were stubborn and dumb in his mind.  One of his tasks when the bank mules faltered under their backbreaking load was to  go over and whop them with a 2×4 to encourage them to once again take up their burden.

So, the greatest epithet he could offer on someone’s character was that “He is dumber than a bank mule.”  I heard him apply this to various neighbors, some of my cousins, and occasionally one of my uncles (tho never, I am proud to say, to me.  But there was another side.  One that still brings a smile to my face anytime I think of it.  Nearly every morning as his beloved wife and my grandmother would place his fried eggs or pancakes on the table, he would reach over and give her a gentle smack on her bottom and say “Hildy, your ass is a broad as a bank mule’s.”  It was said with such unalloyed affection that Grandma smiled at this offhand benediction as an affirmation of love.

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2 thoughts on “Bank Mules

  1. i grew up in Terre Haute and my family all lived north of St. Mary’s of the Woods near New Goshen. My grandfather and uncles used an expression “Farting like a bank mule” as well as ” dumber than a bank mule”. my dad thought it referred to the mules used to pull barges
    in the canals like the Erie and others east of Indiana. It was nice to see your post and that it referred to the coal mines. My grandad and uncles were all coal miners, so im thinking your explanation is probably the correct one for our region. Thanks again for your input. I’ve always wondered about it since i was a child, and never knew. Till now! My grandfather was Sam Dugger of New Goshen who died in ’54 at age 81 and my Dad was Mick, and the uncles were Don Dugger and Tom Beachamp, all of the New Goshen area.

    Tom Dugger
    1241 N.Fieldsstone Ave
    Fayetteville, AR 72704

  2. I’m so glad to see all about bank mules. My grandmother used the metaphor so often to describe anyone who wasn’t very swift or who exhibited stupidity – “dumb as a bank mule,” she’d quip. There are so many old coal mine terms – one of my dad’s jokes was, “You can tell she’s a coal miner’s daughter; she has slack in her pants.” I remember spoil banks, gob piles, tipples, hoot owl shift. oiling the boom, etc. etc.

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