Tuesday, February 28, 2017
The Liberty Mule, also known as the Allen Bluff Mule, has been a landmark, a mystery and a source of Civic Pride for the residents of Liberty, TN for over a century.
For the residents of the Tiny DeKalb County town, the mule had been there for as long as anyone could remember. For a long time, what nobody could remember is who put it there in the first place. On a large bluff near town many years ago someone scaled it several feet off the ground and painted the black mule, which included the word MULE above it. Even still, every so often, someone goes up there to repaint it, sometimes even changing the color, and nobody really knows who does that either. It's original color is black, the way it is today, but the previous color was red.
For a while, there was a story that someone had a pet mule die from falling off the cliff and this was a tribute. Another speculation was it was an advertisement for a mule trading company in town. Neither story really made sense. However, one story that worked is based on a name that's also up there: "L. Woodard." That would have been a local resident named Lavendar Woodard, and the people that knew him thought he was the kind of guy that would do such a thing. As it turns out, he may have repainted it, and he certainly added his name nearby but he wasn't the first. It was still a mystery.
As it turns out, the answer may have been hiding in plain sight. The first painter of the mule may have been Dr. Wayne T. Robinson who was 21 at the time it was painted in 1906 but moved to Dallas without telling anybody he painted it. Fast forward several decades to 1957, Dr. Robinson wrote a series of articles of area history in the local paper. In one of those articles he focused on a nearby cave but casually added that he climbed the bluff to paint out of coal tar the mule to resemble the then-popular comic strip character Maude the Mule. Apparently, nobody remembered this admission and it stayed a mystery for nearly another half century until 2006 when the local county historian made the discovery and then wrote this article in the same newspaper.
Today, highway US70 (as well as TN96, TN53 and TN26) passes right past this bluff and through the town of Liberty. About 10 years ago, the Tennessee Department of Transportation decided to widen the two lane highway to four lanes and the Liberty Mule was in danger of being dynamited for the project. The townspeople started a letter writing campaign which worked and the new lanes were shifted enough to save the landmark. Now, the Mule even has a website where you can buy a t-shirt.