ASHLAND – For about a decade, Gene and Judy Hull sat in the front seat of their mule wagon as they drove the grand marshals of the Saunders County Fair Parade through the route.
This year, the Ashland couple will be in the back seat on Thursday, as they serve as grand marshals for the 2019 Saunders County Fair parade.
Driving the mule wagon was just one of the many contributions Gene and Judy Hull have made to the fair over the past four decades. To honor this specific contribution, the Saunders County Agricultural Society lined up a horse-led wagon to take Gene and Judy through the streets of Wahoo.
Gene told many amusing stories about the mule wagon as he talked about being grand marshal. He and Pat Stewart built the first wagon out of a railway baggage car. They chose mules, a cross between a donkey and a horse, to pull the wagon because both Gene and Pat each owned one of the sturdy animals.
The pair pulled the wagon in their first parade for Ashland’s Stir-Up. Gene said the wagon was filled with their favorite brand of beer. It was a big hit with the crowd, but, allegedly, then- Publisher Art Reidesel refused to take their picture for The Ashland Gazette.
“We were awarded first place but we didn’t have a picture in the paper,” Gene said.
Gene and Pat had so much fun with the mule wagons that they built several more.
“We had five teams and wagons, all built in our shop, all alike,” Gene said.
Judy recalls the pair of friends would drive the wagons around Ashland to visit friends in and around the community.
“They had quite a time with the wagons,” she said.
There are many stories about Gene and Pat’s wagon adventures.
“We did a little bit of everything,” Gene said with a laugh. “Some of it was legal, some of it was questionable.”
The mule wagon was a fixture in parades throughout eastern Nebraska, including the Stir-Up Grand Parade in Ashland and the Saunders County Fair parade for many years.
“We always came to the Wahoo parade,” Judy said.
Judy also had her own horse-drawn transportation.
“I used to have a buggy and cart and I used to ride in parades,” she said.
Horses have long been a part of the Hull family history. Gene adopted his brother’s Shetland pony when he was a young boy and rode the animal three miles to school in Logan, Iowa.
“I’ve always had horses, still do,” he said.
The family moved to Ashland in 1944 when Gene’s father bought the International farm equipment dealership in Ashland.
Gene had dreams of becoming a jockey and raced horses for two years, before he outgrew the diminutive stature required for riding thoroughbreds.
Gene and Judy got married in 1960 and made their home in Ashland, but spent a lot of time on the road. Gene trained race horses in Pawhuska, Okla. for two or three months a year. They also stayed in Grand Island during racing season at Fonner Park.
After their daughter, Jill, was born, the family continued to go on the road, but once she started school, Judy stayed home. Gene got out of horse training and in 1967 started a horse hauling business with a friend from the racing circuit, William “Hoot” Smith.
Hull and Smith Horse Bans, Inc. initially hauled thoroughbred race horses to and from race tracks in Nebraska. As the company grew, they began transporting horses nationwide and into Canada, becoming one of the top authorized carriers in the U.S. in the 1980s and 90s. At its peak, the company hauled 10,000 horses a year. In 1996, they sold the business.
Jill took to horses early on, and became an avid rider. She showed nearly every summer weekend for most of her childhood.
“We never had to worry about what to do on a Sunday afternoon,” Judy said.
Gene competed in horse shows as well when he could fit them in between hauling horses. One of his favorite memories involves winning a trophy with the help of his daughter. Gene was working earlier that day, so Jill packed his gear and entered him in a show in Lincoln. He credits her for the trophy he brought home from that show.
“It’s the only one I’ve kept out of all of them,” he said.
Neither Gene or Judy were involved with 4-H as children, but when Jill joined the Platte Valley Wranglers horse club in Ashland, they also became involved.
Every year during the county fair, the Hulls would bring their trailer and set up camp at the fairgrounds, where they’d meet up with other 4-H families for picnics, homemade ice cream and fun.
“The kids came around to ride and pet the horses and mules,” Judy said.
Judy enjoyed the connections they made through the fair. So much so that when someone suggested she join the organization that helps run the fair, she did. She has been a member of the Saunders County Agricultural Society for 32 years.
“One of the reasons I enjoy being on the fair board is I always got to know people,” she said.
Gene helped with the fair horse show for over 40 years, quitting just a few years ago. He was one of the superintendents for the show for several years and did the announcing. The volunteers were asked to supply much of the equipment needed for the horse show.
“Back in those days, we had to furnish our own announcer system and our own tractor to work the arena,” Gene said.
Along with serving on the fair board, Judy works at the fair each year in some capacity. She also uses her gardening expertise to grow geraniums in pots that decorate the fairgrounds and are sold at the end of the fair.
Judy said it was a “complete surprise” when the fair board asked her and her husband to be grand marshals. Gene is still reflecting on the honor.
“I haven’t really accepted that yet,” he said with another laugh.
No doubt, the pair will have a wide smile and a good laugh as they preside over the parade on Thursday.
The parade starts at 5 p.m. at Sixth and Broadway streets in Wahoo. The route is east on Sixth Street, south on Beech Street, west on Fifth Street, south on Broadway Street and then east on Fourth Street, ending at Smith Park.