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Shopping Spree

Tunica buys a new airport, river park, golf course, arena, and a stuffed mule.

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What's a county to do when its annual budget goes from $3 million to $92 million in a decade and its population essentially stays flat?

Go shopping.

With casinos generating approximately $4 million a month in local tax revenue, Tunica County can easily afford to go first-class and buy a few luxuries.

Having eliminated city property taxes, built miles of new four-lane roads, and raised per-pupil spending at its public schools to a state-highest $10,000, Tunica is using its casino tax windfall to build a $38 million airport, a $23 million river park and marina, a $25 million arena with 14 skyboxes, a $15 million golf-and-tennis center with indoor clay courts, a youth sports complex, and a historical museum.

The whole town was invited to a free fish fry at the arena last week to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the casinos. Mayor Bobby Williams and volunteers fried up over 500 pounds of catfish and served beer, wine, and soft drinks while casino chefs whipped up appetizers and desserts.

The golf course --the third one built in Tunica County in the last five years but the first public course -- is being built on land near Robinsonville donated by local landowners Penn Owen and Bert Robinson along with Horseshoe Casino owner Jack Binion. They hope to build new upscale homes around the golf course and boost Tunica's population, which has been stuck under 10,000 despite all the new jobs and development.

To the south of town, there is talk of reviving Mhoon Landing, site of the original Splash Casino, with three new casinos called Splashback, Lotsa Slots, and Solid Gold.

Then there's Sally, the pride of the historical museum. Other cities have airports, arenas, golf courses, and casinos. But Tunica has the only stuffed mule east of the Rockies.

When it came time to furnish the museum, Tunica wanted an eye-catching and appropriate tribute to the important role played by mules in logging and farming operations in the county's swampy land. The coarse-coated beasts are legendary for their surefootedness and, it is said, willingness to work for a man for years for the chance to kick him once. So Dick Taylor, a Tunica farmer and program director of the museum, started looking around for either a ready-to-install model or a taxidermist who would stuff one.

It didn't sound like such a tough job at first. Any number of hunters have slain and mounted all sorts of bears, moose, and elk that are bigger than a mule, which generally goes about 200 pounds. It isn't especially hard to stuff a mule, but it apparently hardly ever occurs to anyone to do it.

At any rate, there was none to be had in the Mississippi Delta. Rumor had it that there was a stuffed mule in Chattanooga, but that turned out to be untrue. So Taylor expanded his search. He contacted the makers of 20 Mule Team Borax in California. Sure enough, they had 20 stuffed mules, but they were not willing to part with any of them. A museum in Branson, Missouri, reportedly had one, but it turned out to be plastic. Taylor even contacted the Roy Rogers Museum, where the famous cowboy's horse Trigger is stuffed and on display. But no mules.

In all, he estimates that he contacted 100 taxidermists. Some of them laughed. But after 25 years of farming, Taylor does not give up easily. Finally, he found taxidermist Grady Wilson in Monterey, Tennessee, who said he could do the job.

The problem was finding a candidate. Wilson does not deal in live animals. And he advised Taylor that if he bought a mule and killed it, he would incur the wrath of animal-protection advocates. The best solution, he suggested, was to find an aged or sick mule through a farmer or veterinarian, wait for it to die in its own sweet time, then promptly get it to Wilson's taxidermy shop.

Under normal circumstances, that would have been fine, but Taylor had a deadline to meet. The museum was scheduled to open June 30th, and the mule display area, signs, and buckboard wagon were already installed.

"If I don't have a mule by that Sunday," Taylor warned, "I'm gonna have to step over that rail and harness myself to that wagon."

Finally, Wilson located a suitable mule in Middle Tennessee that had expired at age 19. To create a little suspense, he wouldn't tell Taylor the gender. True to the gambling spirit of Tunica County, Taylor and his friends placed bets on which sex the mule would be.

With no taxidermy forms for mules available, Wilson created one for Sally by sawing her into four pieces, casting each piece in plastic, then fitting them back together.

The weekend before the museum was scheduled to open, Sally was ready. Taylor loaded a bale of cotton into a horse trailer, hitched it to a pickup, and drove to Monterey. Sally was wrapped in blankets and packed in cotton for the return trip. The tab: $7,500.

By the grand opening Sunday morning, Sally, still wet with glue, was in the harness, a monument to thousands of her noble sisters and brothers who plowed the cotton fields.

There are many fine exhibits in the museum, from illegal slot machines to a display honoring a local barber who never charged more than $1 for a haircut in more than 50 years. But, clearly, Sally is the apple of Taylor's eye. If you stand in the right place and gaze at her big brown eyes, Sally seems to smile coyly at you.

"She looks a little like the Mona Lisa," says Taylor. "Don't you think?"

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