A Gardendale woman is a living connection to the area’s colorful history.
Emily Shook, 85, owns what is likely one of the oldest houses in Gardendale. Said to have been built in the late 1800s, the George W. Payne house on Payne road is not eligible for the state or county historic registers because at some point, someone added a cupola onto the roof of the house.
Shook and her mother moved into the old Payne House in 1956 from Homewood. The house had belonged to Shook’s grandfather.
“Of course, it was a farm house back then,” Shook said.
Later, Shook’s mother, Bertie Payne Meller, built a house next door for Shook when the daughter got married. Shook still lives there, and she rents out the older house.
Behind the George W. Payne house is what’s left of an old barn.
In its day, the barn housed another Gardendale resident who gained a fair amount of fame when the now-defunct Birmingham Post Herald published at least two articles about him in the late 1960s.
Pete the mule was referred to by the Post Herald as “the world’s oldest mule.” The article said Pete was 44 or 45: He may very well have earned the title honestly.
The newspaper explained that Pete was used in the New Castle mines in 1931 to haul cars of coal to the mine entrance. One day a coal car broke loose and slammed Pete against a wall, breaking his leg.
Pete was sentenced to stand before a firing squad, as was typical for an animal with a broken leg.
However, the company physician, Dr. E.C. Payne, saw Pete and took a liking to him. He asked if he could have the mule for his brother’s farm in Gardendale.
Dr. Payne splinted Pete’s leg. When the leg healed, the doctor took Pete to George W. Payne — Shook’s grandfather.
When Shook and her mother moved to the house in the 1950s, Pete was still there.
“We inherited him,” Shook said. “My mother felt sorry for him. She began making friends with him.”
Shook said that on cold days, her mother would make hot oatmeal and take it to Pete in his barn. The Post Herald said that Pete also had a steady diet of fresh cooked corn, watermelon, Vanilla Wafers, sugar and hot biscuits.
“He was a sweet thing,” Shook said. “We loved him; especially my mother.”
Shook remembers being outside in the garden, hoeing, “and something would bump you in the back,” she said. “It was Pete. It scared us at first, because he ran around loose, but we got used to him.”
Pete lived many more years. When he got old, he broke his leg again and the family was forced to have him put to sleep.
“It just about killed my mother,” Shook said.
In his heyday, after the mining accident, Pete and Meller were in negotiations with Birmingham Baron Owner Albert Belcher to be the team’s mascot, according to the Post Herald.
The article did not say whether Pete became the “world’s oldest rookie mascot,” but either way, he seems to have represented Gardendale, and those who loved him, very well.