Tule Shoes

What in the world is a tule shoe?


A couple weeks ago, collection manager Julie Blood retreated into the storage areas of the Museum and emerged with the two similar objects, one of which is pictured at left. She placed them on a work table next to her desk and members of the staff gathered around like magnets.

These objects are tule shoes. To understand why they attracted our attention, a person needs to savor both halves of their name. The first comes from the tule reed, a plant that for thousands of years dominated the marshy area of western San Joaquin County. So abundant were tules in the mid-1800s that at one point in its early days Stockton was known as “Tuleburgh,” the German equivalent of “Tule Town,” and, in my humble opinion, an unfortunate choice almost certain to generate ridicule.

The second half of the term is equally important. Just as tule reeds dominated the landscape, so also had their decaying remains created some of the most fertile—though unstable and fissured—soil anywhere in the world. One of the major challenges faced by early farmers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta was how to prevent heavy animals and equipment from sinking in the soil or getting caught in cracks.

Hence the tule shoe. The tule shoe is a horseshoe. It distributed the weight of each foot over a wide area, minimized the possibility of injury, and thus enabled farmers to harness the power of a large domesticated animal to exploit the riches of soil in the Delta more efficiently than they could with human labor alone.

That much I know; however, I still have many questions. Are our samples complete? Did each shoe sit on a platform, perhaps made of wood? Who invented them? How widespread was their use—within and outside the Delta? Did they actually work? Were the horses awkward or uncomfortable? Are there any photographs of them wearing tule shoes? My list goes on and on.

Tule shoes intrigue me, not only because they’re forgotten artifacts from long ago, but also because they were one of the earliest of many inventions designed to meet the challenges of farming in California’s Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta.

1 comment to Tule Shoes

  • Leigh Johnsen

    I greatly appreciate insights that a number of visitors offered me via e-mail in response to last week’s blog about tule shoes. I’ve learned that the subject is covered in Beasts of the Field: A Narrative History of California Farmworkers, 1769-1913 (Stanford, 2004), by Richard Steven Street.

    According to Street (page 266), tule shoes were developed by Chinese workers in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. “Working in the soft peat soil,” he writes, “they regularly struggled to control horses that became bogged down, panicked, and thrashed about as they pulled scrapers, often injuring themselves and their drivers.”

    The first tule shoes were ash planks ten by eight inches in size, with webbing half an inch thick. “Thus equipped,” writes Street, “horses made a poor showing on dry land, clumping along heavily. But once they learned to wear the devices, they could work in bogs without floundering. All they had to do was swing each leg out in a wide circle to avoid tripping.”

    The Chinese eventually replaced the wood with iron rings about twelve inches in diameter and joined them with metal supports to ordinary horseshoes. Thus they created “what were in effect oversized horseshoes that quickly became standard on horses employed by all farmers working in bog lands.”

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