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Editorial Archives — The Altamont Enterprise, July 19, 2007

"A good old worker and a good old pal"

Pictured above:
Sheet music for "Low Bridge" celebrates a man’s love for his mule.

In decades of covering local zoning and planning boards, what we remember when a mining operation is proposed or expanded is angry residents, complaining about noise and disruption, big trucks and damaged roads — an end to peace and quiet.

How unusual to run, this week, a story describing neighbors in support of David Zwack who hauls limestone off Indian Ledge Road in New Scotland. The limestone, which sits on the ground, is sold for landscaping.

"I have never, ever been bothered by his operation," said a nearby property owner.

"He’s been an integral part to a lot of lawns in the community," said a Voorheesville resident.

"I’ve always known him to be a fair and honest businessman," said another. "He runs a good operation."

What’s different about Zwack is how he extracts the limestone — he does it by hand with the help of his three mules.

He’s been doing this for 30 years but just this year, the town’s building department informed him it was not permitted in his zone.

The town’s zoning board did the right thing in granting Zwack a use variance so he can continue his operation. A use variance is difficult to come by because the applicant must prove financial hardship. Zwack’s lawyer told the board that Zwack had invested more than $250,000 in the business, in addition to the costs associated with the property. The board determined, because of the topography of the land with its vast amount of surface stone, it could not be used for any other purpose.

Zwack told our reporter, Rachel Dutil, he is glad the months-long ordeal is over. "I was surprised to have to go through the town," he said, "but it all worked out good."

It’s good for the rest of us, too. In granting the variance, the board preserved a gem beyond the limestone.

What riveted us in Dutil’s story is the description of Zwack’s relationship to his mules. He has named them Slate, Shale, and Limestone and says with pride that they are "much stronger than horses." He calls them his "four-legged Cadillacs."

Zwack doesn’t work his aging mules as hard as he used to because he now has a skid steer to move the stones.

"When I first started, I had no equipment," he said. "I’d hook a mule onto the rock and get it where I could get it out."

Limestone weighs 185 pounds per cubic foot, but that is no problem for the mule that bears its name, said Zwack.

Limestone the Mule, who is nearly 30 years old and has only one eye, is "as strong as an ox," he said, adding, "Actually, he’s probably stronger."

Zwack enjoys their companionship as, during the off-season, he takes rides on his "four-legged Cadillacs" through the New Scotland countryside.

Most of us, these days, haven’t experienced or even witnessed a person’s worthwhile working relationship with an animal. We remember, as kids, saving borax soap labels to send for a plastic model of a 20-mule team that hauled the borax from the mine. We’d marvel at how the small creatures, harnessed together, could pull such a heavy load.

And, like all New Yorkers, as grade-school students we sang Thomas Allen’s song about the Erie Canal before the days of engine power, when barges were pulled by mules. At the heart of the song is a man’s love for his mule:

I’ve got an old mule and her name is Sal
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal
She’s a good old worker and a good old pal
Fifteen miles on the Erie Canal
We’ve hauled some barges in our day
Filled with lumber, coal, and hay
And every inch of the way we know
From Albany to Buffalo

He says he’d never part with Sal and pines about where he’d be if he lost his pal. He tells of how a friend once got her sore and now he’s got a busted jaw. He says he doesn’t have to call when he wants his Sal; she trots from her stall like a good old gal, and concludes:

I eat my meals with Sal each day
I eat beef and she eats hay
And she ain’t so slow if you want to know
She puts the "Buff" in Buffalo.

We happily sang these words as kids. They told a story we could relate to — a story of love and loyalty. But even then, 50-odd years ago, mules were part of a heritage, not a reality for our everyday lives.

The horse-and-buggy days are gone; we rely now on the convenience of machines but we don’t have a relationship with them.

So we can appreciate the rare relationship between a working man and his animals. We thrill to see Altamont sheep farmer Don Otterness work his border collie, guiding him with a series of whistles as he sorts and herds sheep.

And we were moved to tears this week when we read our farm columnist Teri Conroy’s story on the death of her llama, Star.

"I tell her she cannot leave me. I remind her how much I love her. And I cry-whisper to her that she is my big strong girl and we have much to do, and she is not even four years old."

Conroy says these things to her llama as Star lays dying.

The bond between farmers and their animals can be deep and strong.

And while Zwack may be less emotional than Conroy in talking about his animals, they are just as essential to him. We’re glad he’ll be able to continue hauling limestone. It’s not just his stones that are an integral part of local lawns; his way of doing business is an integral part of our heritage and worth preserving.

— Melissa Hale-Spencer, editor

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