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A Joy of Donkeys
John O'Reilly
July 08, 1957
In Bucks County, Pa., the jackass is man's most beloved friend. Here an avowed leader of the donkey set tells why
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July 08, 1957

A Joy Of Donkeys

In Bucks County, Pa., the jackass is man's most beloved friend. Here an avowed leader of the donkey set tells why

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Tucked away in the northern corner of Pennsylvania's Bucks County, just beyond comfortable commuting distance from New York City, there is a stretch of country dotted by small towns, many of which are smaller than they were 50 years ago. Between the towns there are gently rolling hills composed largely of red shale which, thank heaven, is usually hidden by second-growth timber or crops. In spots the red shale gives way to yellow clay so impervious to water that swamps exist on the tops of ridges.

If we penetrate this pleasant countryside, traversing its twisting roads lined with miles and miles of old barbed-wire fence, we are apt to get lost. But in doing so, we find ourselves in the heart of the donkey country. If we get lost on just the right roads we will see herds of donkeys grazing on the lush greenery of rolling pastures or nibbling at the tall ragweed festooning the hedgerows. Even in the edges of the same towns where we pause to get directions we are likely to see donkeys in backyards.

Here amid these tranquil scenes there has evolved a gracious mode of living centered around donkeys. It is a calm way of life in which people have turned to donkeys as an antidote for the age of speed. Some donkey owners hitch up their long-eared beauties to natty rigs and drive right through town in defiance of the raucous taunts of speed-crazed motorists. Others are content to sit quietly watching the yearlings at play in the meadow. They all join old Samuel Taylor Coleridge in saying, "Poor little Foal of an oppressed race!/I love the languid patience of thy face."

Among members of the donkey set there are many old customs and traditions—traditions going as far back as seven or eight years. One of these is the ritual attendant upon the birth of each new foal. This is one time when the languid living gives way to a fever pitch of excitement. When the event takes place the lucky owner rushes to the telephone and starts calling other donkey owners in the neighborhood. The news spreads like a prairie fire, as it always does where the party-line telephone system is in vogue.

Soon cars, jeeps and station wagons are speeding along the crooked roads, all headed for the same destination. Each vehicle has its quota of children, for where there are donkeys you will always find small fry. The two just seem to belong together. The crowd gathers around the fuzzy arrival. It stands unsteadily beside its dam. Its ears are almost as long as they'll ever be. Its tail has a comical brevity. With large, deep-set eyes it makes its first appraisal of the world. At this point the small donkey's world is composed of a ring of ecstatic members of the donkey set.

They admire the softness of its ears; its tiny, pointed hoofs; the solemn expression on its face. Young donkeys are apt to frisk soon after they are born. Each time it gives the slightest frisk, laughter spreads around the ring. This sort of thing goes on until the wives remember the pot roast burning on the stove, and the husbands realize that even in the good life some work must be done. Reluctantly they depart, avowing that this is the cutest donkey ever foaled.

There are few variations to this ritual, although on one occasion a donkey breeder became so proud over the birth of a frisky foal that he donned a yellow necktie emblazoned with a donkey's picture and went around the neighborhood passing out medium-good cigars.

Members of the donkey set are generally interested in all animals, from hoptoads to spring lambs, but their greatest devotion is displayed toward this ancient beast of burden. Their sentiments in this respect were best phrased by Coleridge when he wrote in another outburst of emotion: "Owls I respect and Jack Asses I love."

Another deep-seated custom down in the donkey country is the donkey-viewing cocktail party. At these functions the guests stroll the spacious lawns chatting freely on subjects related to the raising and enjoyment of donkeys. Both men and women are attired with an eye to dignity and casual comfort; the men featuring trousers and open-necked shirts; the women wearing dresses. Occasionally some man shows up with a necktie or some woman appears in cocktail pants but such examples of bad taste are ignored.

As the guests wander the greensward or lean on the paddock fence to watch the donkeys, it is noticeable that each has latched onto a real Old-fashioned Bucks County Deep-dish Martini. The Deep-dish Martini, with its rich aroma of blended gin and oil of lemon skin, is as traditional as the very donkeys themselves. Built along strong lines, this drink must be taken in the leisurely pace that marks this type of living. It is a large drink, constructed to last out a slow walk to the donkey barn, a period of quiet contemplation of the animals there, and a conversational stroll back. It should be consumed while on the move. Those who sit and gulp seldom rise again.

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