Go back

What's buried underneath the Red Barn?

Red barn under construction

Ghosts, if you believe in that sort of thing, have a tendency to be somewhat passive-aggressive – opening creaky, closet doors, stomping down a hallway or sighing in some distant, upstairs bedroom. Why not do away with the subtly and simply say, “I am here, and I do not like you”?

            But if you happen to hear some clopping or slow footsteps in the APSU Memorial Gym, also known as the Red Barn, don’t get too upset by this poor behavior. That’s just the old campus mule, who was buried more than half a century ago where the gymnasium now stands.

            How he got there is a bit of a strange story, told by Dr. Edward Chester, emeritus professor of biology at APSU. And like all good legends, he heard it from someone else – the late Dr. Haskell Phillips, who oversaw what was then the biology and agriculture department.

            The story of the mule begins in the late 1940s, when soldiers back from World War II enrolled in large numbers at Austin Peay State College.

            “A lot of them were married and had small children,” Chester said. “They brought in some old barracks and they made apartments out of some of them. Anyway, they had a vegetable garden and in the garden they had a tractor, but they also had a mule.

            “Dr. Philips said the mule was old and very gentle. They actually used him to cultivate the garden. He said on weekends, a lot of these married students who had small children – there were no recreation facilities for them, and they had no money anyway – they’d get that old mule out and put kids on it and lead him. You’d see that mule with three or four kids on his back and someone leading him across campus.”

            Eventually, the old mule died. Chester guessed it was around the late 1940s. The animal was buried in a field on campus, but only two or three years later, the growing college developed plans to put a new gymnasium on that site.

            “A lot of those people who had grown up around that old mule, they said, ‘we prefer that this mule’s grave not be disturbed,’” Chester said. “They were now lawyers and doctors. They were donors to the University, people of influence. They said, ‘can we build this building without disturbing the mule’s grave?’”

             The contractor said that shouldn’t be a problem since the building didn’t have a basement.

            “So they built the Red Barn on top of the mule’s grave,” Chester said. “And the old mule is about center court. That was once the basketball arena. I have gone to basketball games galore there. That was in the Fly Williams era. They packed that thing to the rafters. And I said, ‘My Lord, if they just knew there’s an old mule buried under that gym floor.”

            If you know of any APSU legends, either true or unconfirmed, please contact Charles Booth at boothcw@apsu.edu.