Tradition of mule pulling hanging on at Howard County Fair

Mule pulling may not sound like the most interesting thing of all time. It’s a tradition often associated with those looking for free entertainment on Southern farms. But the spectacle was seen last weekend by at least 50 people at the Howard County Fair in West Friendship.

Essentially, the contest pits two mules, sometimes paired in teams, that pull a sleigh that slowly are increased in weight. Sometimes, the weights are rectangular-shaped concrete blocks.


At the Howard County Fair on Saturday morning, the weights were initially squarish slabs of metal. Eventually, they were replaced by large blocks of concrete so heavy fair workers had to use a construction lift to place it on the sleigh. The weights reached 2,500 pounds.

The goal of the competition is to see which team can pull the heaviest sleigh. Whichever mule wins is dubbed the strongest.


The process can be a bit slow. It takes time to place the weights on the sleigh to ensure it won’t fall. Once the mules began to pull, the crowd at the fair gave a congratulatory golf-clap for the sole team competing. In between the pulls, the crowd was serenaded by the event’s moderator who intermittently spouted mule facts and compliments while officials placed the weights on the sleigh.

“That’s a good-looking pair of mules,” the moderator said.

The mule pair, both with chestnut coats, both worked for years on an Amish farm, according to owner Franklin Fleming, of Mount Airy. Fleming said Allison, 12, and Detroit, who is older than 25, are now retired and rarely compete in events like this.

“They’re usually shown in parades,” said Haley Kuhn, a 21-year-old who works at Broken Spoke Farm alongside Fleming. That’s why it’s so impressive they were so easily able to pull 2,500 pounds, she said.

They’re also very intelligent; they know when to stop working. “A horse will work itself to death,” Kuhn said.

Fleming, 60, said he participated in 13 mule-pulling competitions at the Howard County Fair over the years. He said he’s only lost twice. His success is impressive as the competition once saw as many as 18 teams.

This year, there was only one team. Corey Franklin, a 35-year-old judge from Woodbine, said there’s no real reason for the decrease in annual participation.

“The mules get old along with their owners,” he speculated.

Bill Wilinkson was in the crowd Saturday morning. The 81-year-old from West Friendship has watched the competition for 30 years.

“It’s unique,” he said. “You don’t find an event like this in suburban areas. It allows people who live nearby to witness something usually done by farm boys.”

The Howard County Fair runs through Aug. 10 at the Howard County Fairgrounds, 2210 Fairgrounds Road in West Friendship. Admission varies from $5 to $7 depending on times and days; ages 62 and older are $3 while those younger than 10 are free. All entertainment is free. For a full schedule of events, go to howardcountyfairmd.com.

Detroit and Allison are hooked up to the sleigh for the Mule Pulling Contest on Saturday at the Howard County Fair in West Friendship.
Detroit and Allison are hooked up to the sleigh for the Mule Pulling Contest on Saturday at the Howard County Fair in West Friendship. (Nicole Munchel for the Baltimore/Baltimore Sun Media Group)

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