Montana Muleskinner Jack Eden: Doing It His Own Quiet Way
by Ruth Thorning of Montana
photos by Helen Eden
When Jack Eden was born almost seven decades ago, his grandfather and father worked their southern Idaho farms with Percheron teams. He learned to drive, sitting on their laps.
Jack wasn’t in school yet when he started driving on his own. He wasn’t a teenager when he started working teams and four-up hitches – and having occasional runaways. He wasn’t old enough to shave when he was being given teams of colts to break on his own, trusted by the older generations to do the job right and turn out animals ready to work.
Jack vividly remembers working with his uncle in what is now the Selway/Bitterroot Wilderness in the early 1940s, breaking green colts for local ranchers in the spring and summer, packing hunters into the rugged mountains and then trailing the string of mules and horses from Paradise, Idaho, to winter pastures in Hot Springs, Montana, a three-day trip in late November, along gravel roads where cars were the exception not the rule.
In a modern world where men have walked on the moon and even children now crawl the World-Wide Web from desktop computers, Jack has remained true to his early love – working with horses and mules.
He and his wife Helen live in Hamilton, Montana, surrounded by the mountains where Jack has spent most of his working life. Helen teaches school in tiny, nearby Corvallis and Jack farms their 10-acre parcel on the edge of split-level suburbia with teams of mules, just as his grandfather and father did 70 years ago.
Jack has a collection of lovingly-preserved horse-drawn wagons and farming equipment that many museums would covet. The pieces of machinery are not for display-only antiques to Jack – they are the tools of his trade. Each year, in addition to breaking and training a number of young work mules for himself and a very lucky few other people, Jack farms land for friends and neighbors – share-cropping hay to feed his own herd of 13 mules, all of which he broke and trained himself.
The mules range from pensioner Molly, who is 24, to three year-old Tom, the spare in Jack’s eight-up hitch of Percheron mules.
In addition to spreading manure, plowing, mowing, raking and hauling about 50 tons of hay each year with the teams, Jack ditches with mules and packs them each summer and fall. He relies on his leaders, Abbie and Willie, to help train younger mules.
And when he has the time, he takes the mules that are a part of this everyday life to competitions around Montana and Idaho, vying with hobby owners to see how his down-on-the-farm mules do.
And they do very well, thank you, Jack will tell you with a quiet grin. At the North Idaho Draft Horse International Show in Sandpoint, Idaho, in October Jack took first place in the log pull for the second year in a row and first place in the sixmule hitch competition.
His knees are stiff from years of tussles and collisions with stubborn colts and he still has the occasional runaway with recalcitrant young teams. But his spirit is the spirit of his ancestors – eternally young, tied to the land and the animals he loves, living the life he chose for himself more than 60 years ago, still enthusiastic about each new mule and its possibilities. It’s a life most of us can only dream of – and envy.