The next participant in our Q&A interview series is Bill Neel, an avid driver and promoters of draft mules.

Where do you live?  My wife, Lyn, and I live on a ranch, just south of Eugene, Oregon, that sits alongside the original Oregon-to-California stage road.

How are you involved in the driving/carriage world?  We own and drive Belgian-cross draft mules and collect and restore antique vehicles. I have four pair [eight mules] and attempt to drive each pair twice a week year round. We compete at shows in the West from May to Oct., usually lay off the month of Nov., and then begin working inside in Dec. to prepare for the show season in May.

I won the title of World Champion Driver at the Bishop Mule Days Show in 2005 and 2007. I was Reserve Champion in 2006. We skipped Bishop in 2008 and 2009 but will be back this year. Our last, and fanciest show each year is in Sandpoint, Idaho. At that show in 2009, I placed second in Singles, first in Pairs and Unicorn, third in Team, third in Four Abreast, and first in Six-Up Conformation.

Since I maintain eight draft mules, about sixteen vehicles, and twenty-two sets of harness from show to military, I guess you could say I’m in it up to my ears.

How long have you been driving? How did you become interested in this sport/world?  We started driving in 1975 with a pair of Morgan/Hackney crosses and graduated to draft mules in 2000. We drove a Platform Spring Wagon with a local history on which we did some preservation. I’ve ridden on and off most of my life. Lyn and I both showed cutting horses on the Oregon, Northwest, Pacific Coast, and national circuits for about twenty-five years, beginning in 1972.

Do you come from a driving/horsy family?  I’m from a routine western ranching family, not particularly “horsy.” Lyn was from Pasadena and had no horse experience there.

If you have children, do they ride or drive?  We have a son and a daughter. They both rode cutting horses competitively and our son competed in high school and college rodeo, but neither ride or own horses at this time. We have two grandsons of high school and college age, neither of whom will even ride with me in a wagon/carriage!

Are you a CAA member?  Yes, we’ve been members for about eight years. We have attended CAA events at the KY Horse Park and in California, and plan on attending more. We have been to Windsor to meet the Queen and have made some wonderful friends.

What was your first equine? What do you drive now?  Our first horses were ranch Quarter Horses, followed by high-quality cutting horses. Our first driving experience was with a pair of Morgan/Hackney crosses. We did not drive single until very recently, and now, only as necessary for competition. We compete in Singles and Pairs, Unicorn, Team, Four Abreast, and Six-Up, as well as Timed Obstacles (cones), and Gambler’s Choice classes, all with our draft mules. We also participate in a number of parades and competitions where period dress and turnout are judged. We particularly enjoy two- to five-day trail drives with our Chuck Wagon, particularly over portions of the Oregon Trail.

What types of carriage(s) do you drive/collect?  We collect and restore western vehicles suitable to mules and we drive everything we collect. At the present time we own: a Platform Spring Wagon, often called a Mountain Wagon (c. 1885 with local history; this was our first vehicle); a Henderson Long-spring Sierra Mountain Wagon built for the Yellowstone trade (c. 1905, restored); a Weber Chuck Wagon (c. 1890–1900, with original paint, some new parts, and a solid reach); a Weber Farm Wagon (c. 1900–1915, with original paint, some new parts, and a swivel reach); a country-style Hearse mfg. by Samuel Convers, Lowell, Mass. (c. 1854, restored by Morgan Carriage); a Portland Cutter (with doors) mfg. by Lull Carriage Works, Kalamazoo, Mich., restored; an Army Escort Wagon, model of 1906 mfg. by Moline Plow Co. in original preserved condition; a Spring Wagon (with most unusual axles and springs, original condition and paint); a Studebaker Rockaway, restored; a Hitch Wagon (Express Wagon) with local history, restored; a Show Wagon that we use in competition; and a contemporary Road Cart that we use in competition. In addition, we have a second Hitch Wagon, a Wagonette, a Pole Cart, two Forecarts, and a Stone Boat, all contemporary vehicles and in daily use.

Do you have a favorite vehicle among your own collection?  Choosing among vehicles is like choosing among children. I just finished two-and-a-half years of work completely restoring my Hitch Wagon so it is probably my current “favorite,” followed by my Henderson, which is the most appropriate Western wagon. My Hearse is the most nearly perfect and interesting, and I love my Escort Wagon—in that order, but it may change next week. It should be noted that EACH vehicle has appropriate harness and attire for a complete turnout. I do a great deal of restoration but also have employed experts (Morgan Carriage Works and Oxbow Trading Co.) when prudent. Most of my vehicles fall under the wagon rather than the carriage class, but then I am a westerner and I have mules.

What is the most interesting/far-flung place that your driving has taken you?  The forty-mile section of the Oregon/California Trail across the Humbolt Sink known as “The Fearful Crossing” while reading the journal of my great-great-grandfather, who wrote of the same crossing in 1849.

Do you have a favorite carriage museum or vehicle?  I don’t have a favorite carriage museum, but I thoroughly enjoy original Henderson Mud Wagons, manufactured in Stockton, Calif., and used – with mules of course – in the West.

Do you have a favorite carriage type, builder, era, etc.?  Milton Henderson, M. P. Henderson & Son of Stockton, Calif., is my favorite builder, and I love his Mud Wagons, though I will probably never own one, and his Yosemite vehicles, which I do own.

Is there a particular era/time period/type of vehicle in history that you would enjoy traveling back to … and driving in?  We participate in Rendezvous of the fur-trade era (1820–40), and reenactments of the Civil War era (with the Hearse) and the Cattle Drive era (1875 to 1885). We do WWI reenactments with the Escort Wagon. We both probably prefer the Cattle Drive era since it suits our mules and our Chuck Wagon, and the drives are often several days with overnight stays in a trail tent alongside the wagon.

Our outfits were featured in Bob Mischka’s mule calendars in 2008 (we were on the November page with the Escort Wagon for Armistice Day) and 2009 (on the May page for the Rendezvous Fur Trade).

Do/did you ride or participate in other horse sports?  I ride and pack my pair of John mules, though not in competition. I also hunt in wilderness areas with my mules.

What do you like best about driving/collecting as a hobby/sport?  When sitting on the box with four on the ribbons, all the world is right.

What spectator sports do you enjoy watching? Who is your favorite team/player?  None and double none.

What was your first / favorite car?  My first car was a classic 1947 MG-TC, which I used in sportscar rallies and showed in Concours de Elegance, including Pebble Beach in 1957. I now own a 1991 limited-edition (one of 3,000) racing GMC Syclone pickup, which is my “toy” car.

Do you have any other pets?  Lyn and I own a pair of working English Setters, Max and Gus, over which we shoot grouse, pheasant, chukar, huns, and quail.

What is your favorite food/cuisine?  Lyn and I both enjoy cooking. Our fare tends to gravitate to Western and Chuck Wagon dishes with a lot of game thrown in. As to our favorites, it would be a toss-up among venison medallions (or venison liver, bacon, and onions), Indian-style smoked Chinook salmon with sage and garlic, or grouse with herbs du Provence.

What is your favorite holiday?  We participate in parades on Memorial Day, Independence Day, Armistice Day, and Labor Day so each is different and fun. Thanksgiving to Christmas is catch up and rest time in a busy year. We spend the time turning the mules out, cleaning harness, and counting our blessings.

Bill also sent photos of his mules and wagons; here are just a few:

Bill driving four of his draft mules to his restored Hearse, in a parade

the Neels driving in the desert

Bill driving a six-up of his draft mules in a competition

two of the Neels’ wagons

a close-up look at one of the Neels’ beautiful draft mules