Mule Days founder Bob Tanner dies

By Deb Murphy

Bob Tanner lived a glorious, enviable life. He was a packer, an author, a founder of Bishop’s Mule Days, a football coach, the face and voice for pack stations when the lifestyle was threatened by government regulation and the driving force behind the vision of a mule museum in Bishop.

Bob Tanner

Tanner died December 3.

Like many Eastern Sierra residents, he was drawn back to the place of family vacations from his home in Southern California, working his way through college as a packer in the backcountry, learning the craft. After college and a stint in the Navy during the Korean War, he came back, permanently.

In 1953, he went to work for Archie Mann at Red’s Meadow Pack Station. Seven years later he bought the operation and spent the next five decades sharing the Eastern Sierra with tourists, celebrities and politicians.

tanner1 He learned the best mules came from the southeast, crosses between drafts and donkeys. He learned the art of shoeing, how to tie knots, how to feed both his employees and his stock and he learned every inch of the 175 square miles of wilderness in Yosemite National Park and the John Muir Wilderness that was part of his Red’s Meadows’ permit.

In 1969, he and Leo Potterfield had a conversation about some of the memorable moments of life as a packer and what a good show that would be. That winter saw record snowfall, leaving the trails in the backcountry snow-covered until August and hobbling the pack stations. The solution to the industry’s grave cash flow was Tanner’s vision of a raucous mule show, Mule Days, a celebration of all things mule and a sneak-peek at what packers and their mules have to deal with. The Memorial Day weekend event became one of the premier mule shows, drawing talented mules from all over the country.

Bob Tanner and the 20 mule team mule days parade

But Tanner wasn’t one to rest on his laurels. When Mule Days got bogged down with show classes that only an enthusiastic equestrian could appreciate, Tanner shook things up, turning the clock back to the original intent: fun.

When law suits threatened to regulate the packers into oblivion, it was Tanner who spoke to the media, speaking simply about the heritage and value of an industry that took visitors deep into the beauty of the Sierra.

american mule museum

Tanner didn’t stop with Mule Days. His next vision was the American Mule Museum, a work in progress that started with seed money from the federal government. When the project funding was used as an example of government “pork” on CNN in 2007, Tanner wasn’t discouraged telling Sierra Wave “we made Mule Days something; we can make this thing something.”

Tanner will be missed, but he left enough of himself behind for both locals and visitors to the Sierra to remember and enjoy. He left a son, Bobby, with the ability to handle the famous 20-Mule Team, he left his mark on Mule Days and the countless volunteers and participants over the past 45 years, on the 1957 Bishop Broncos football team that claimed the CIF division championship and the inevitable American Mule Museum.


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6 Responses to Mule Days founder Bob Tanner dies

  1. Linda Puddicombe Hahn June 5, 2016 at 3:10 pm #

    Bob was my neighbor growing up in Bishop. I was fortunate to babysit both his children Suzanne and Bobby. He’d pay me extra if I graded 8th grade papers! He was so proud of purchasing Red’s Meadow Pack Station. My brother, Rich, worked for him over the summer. My father painted one of his first trucks in our driveway. Have watched him and his ex-wife Jean in the Rose Bowl Parade for years. Bob was an umpire for numerous basketball games at Bishop Union High School. Since both of my brothers played basketball, I was in the gym from the time I was in 5th grade. Bob was regularly an umpire. One of my family’s vacation was taking a pack train out of Red’s Meadow. It was a fabulous experience. Have gone to Red’s Meadow numerous times over the years. My brothers and I would water their yard and mow the lawn while they were gone for the summer. Bob was a part of my growing up in Bishop. He was a good person. I can still hear my Dad and Bob laughing out front. Bob and I chatted on the phone several times over the years. The last time was shortly before his passing. Said he was getting in the way now that he was aging! A man of that knowledge was never in the way!
    Thanks for all the great memories, being a good neighbor, and lifelong friend. May you rest in peace! You will be missed!

  2. Martin Campbell January 27, 2016 at 7:35 pm #

    God Bless Couson Bob
    May he Rest in Peace

  3. kim December 12, 2015 at 9:21 pm #

    This wonderful man (while working for him), (thanks to Carol Bunce), taught me so much about mules. From showing me how wonderful mules are and also how to watch out how to save your shins in the whole process. From the trail maps written(or drawn) in the dirt,or on a breakfast I NEVER got lost. I loved to take a string of mules in local parades, taking in guests into uncharted places in the eastern sierras, and to make sure they were safe and comfortable in strange places!!. R.I.P. my friend who was like a father that a boss. And Brice said i hope you are with Harold, Gus and of course…. Roger the wonder mule. Love you.!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  4. Charlotte Carter December 10, 2015 at 11:08 am #

    BTW Great article.

  5. Charlotte Carter December 10, 2015 at 11:07 am #

    I had the good fortune of talking to Mr. Tanner during a trail bridge inspection while working for the Inyo National Forest. I’ll never forget him telling me that Generals rode horses so that they could see everything instead of watching their feet. It was during the time that the Forest Service believed that hiking was kinder to the environment than horses. Maybe they still do.

  6. Charles O. Jones December 8, 2015 at 7:48 am #

    Rest in peace Mr. Tanner.


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