The Mule Solution: Farming with Mules

Iowa millionaire successfully farmed 10 sections of land with mules.

| March 2016

When we talk about farming with mules decades ago, we tend to picture small operations. An Iowa ranch established in 1896 is a noteworthy exception.

William P. Adams was an unlikely farmer. Born in Massachusetts to a family with lineage stretching back to John Adams and John Quincy Adams, W.P. Adams owned stock in International Harvester, Illinois Continental Bank & Trust Co. and Union Pacific Railroad. After his marriage in Massachusetts in 1884, he and his bride, Nettie Moore, who had studied at the New England Conservatory of Music, moved to North Dakota to land owned by his father. They farmed in North Dakota until 1893, when they moved to Wheaton, Illinois, where Adams took an office job in Chicago.

In 1896, dissatisfied with office work and missing farming, Adams (then 33) purchased nine sections of land in western Iowa near the town of Odebolt. He reportedly paid $185,000 (about $5.2 million today) for the nine sections that he named Fairview Farm. He later purchased an additional section, and the farm became better known as the Adams Ranch.

Farming with mules

Farming 10 sections of land with mules seems inconceivable today, yet the Adams family did it successfully through the first half of the 20th century, using about 240 mules at a time.

Roger Rector, Ida Grove, Iowa, grew up on the Adams ranch in the 1950s when his dad, Ross, was the mule supervisor there. Ross started working at the ranch when W.P. Adams was still alive. “Every mule had a name and I think my dad knew at least 199 of them,” Roger says. “I recall him telling me that he couldn’t put Betty to work with Suzie because they didn’t work well together, and when they were out in the field being handled by a driver, you had to have mules that were compatible with each other.”

In a small office in the mule barn, a glass plate hung on one wall. Behind it was listed the stall number and name of every mule in the barn. “You could walk up and check to see that the number 12 stall held Suzie,” Roger says, “and that Henry was in number 19.”

1/21/2018 8:38:30 PM

I posted my collection of Adams Ranch postcards on Odebolt History page. i think that Rootsweb is currently unavailable, but should be back soon. It was my understanding that at their peak, they had close to 20 sections.