Side Trail Article
My nose was glued to my computer screen while researching a story I was working on. Suddenly I felt as if someone was watching me. I turned and looked up to see my boss standing over my shoulder.
“How would you like to take a break from that machine and get some fresh air?” He asked.
“What do you have in mind,” I replied.
“What do you know about mules?”
“I know that a mule is the offspring of a male donkey and a female horse. Other than that, not much.”
“Well then today's your lucky day,” declared my boss as he handed me an assignment sheet.
As I looked it over, he continued. “Seems these animals were quite popular at one time. Now they're bred more for pleasure. There's a mule breeders convention in town and I'm sure there's a story there. I want you to find it.”
I gave him my usual reply. “I'm on it, boss.”
As I drove to the city convention center I recalled an old movie I had seen as a kid. It was about a mule that could talk. Can you really teach a mule to talk? I wondered. I guess I would find out.
My first impression of the convention was, how should I put it, ...interesting.
Most of the people here didn't just like mules, they were mule fanatics. It was pretty clear to see they had an agenda. Which was to bring the mule back to its 'rightful' standing. It's a popularity contest between mules and horses. Currently the horses are winning.
I was looking for a woman names Lois. She was the head mule in charge of public relations. I found her easily enough. From the way she dressed, she didn't hide the fact that she was a committed mule lover. Seems she lived and breathed the subject. She was a walking mule encyclopedia and just the person I needed to talk with.
I politely introduced myself and after some small talk I eased into the interview with my opening question. “So, what can you tell me about mules?”
From that point on, I didn't need to say much. She talked enough for both of us. I did occasionally nod my head, but mostly I just took notes.
“Well I know a thing or two,” she began. “But first let me tell you a little about horses.”
Hmm, I thought we were talking mules here, I kept quiet and gave her free rein.
“Horses are at the forefront of popular Western culture. I guess they have their place. Ask any cowboy. They think they're the best candidate for working cattle out on the range. It is a cowboys preferred mode of transportation. Any horse lover who trail rides for recreation will agree there's no better animal. They apparently haven't rode a mule. We use them for breeding purposes and that's about all I have to say about horses.”
I could tell she wasn't liking them much and for some reason she needed to get that off her chest. Once Lois had finished with her little horse speech she turned her full attention to mules.
“Unfortunately, mules aren't as popular as a horse these days. But there was a time in this countries history when they were pretty darned important. Even moreimportant than the horse.”
It was evident she had an unhealthy bias, against horses and toward mules.
She continued. “Up until the early 1900’s, mules were used to plow most of the agricultural land in this country. By 1940, the internal combustion engine had replaced most of those hard working mules. The advent of the tractors in general, quickly put the mule out of business.
“Before the industrial revolution mules were considered the work animal of choice. They did the hard labor. They were used for pulling heavy loads. Loggers used them to drag big logs through the woods and farmers used them to pull their plows. A variety of wagons and stage coaches were even pulled by mules.”
She stopped to take a drink of water which gave me the opportunity to get in a word. “I've seen plenty of movies that show horses, not mules pulling covered wagons and stage coaches.”
She almost choked on her water. Once she recovered, she bluntly retorted.
“That's Hollywood. Those once popular western films have always portrayed the misguided image of horses pulling covered wagons. While the 'lowly' mule had only Francis the talking mule to boost it’s image. That portrayal is just not right.”
“That brings up a question,” I interjected. “Can you really teach a mule how to talk?”
She gave me both a horrified look and the eye of death. “Oh spare me, please,” she snarled coldly. She totally dismissed the question and went on.
“The truth is, during this countries Westward expansion most wagons were pulled by either oxen or mules. Missouri was the point where hundreds of thousands of pioneers began their journey. And many did it with Missouri mules.”
“Missouri mules? There's a difference?” I questioned.
“There certainly is. The best draft mules came out of Missouri. Their breeding program was second to none. Typically, a Missouri mule is a cross between a draft breed mare and a mammoth jack.”
“A mammoth jack? What is that?”
“A mammoth jack is the largest American breed of donkey. It gave the Missouri mule a reputation of being very stout and easy to manage.
“Mules were actually preferred over oxen. They were typically faster and more dependable. A big drawback with oxen was that they had a split hoof which had a bad tendency to splinter on the rocks in mountainous terrain. Not exactly the best place to have 'engine failure' if you know what I mean.
“By the 1870’s the westward expansion was down to a trickle and Missouri breeders needed new outlets for their stock. They began promoting their mules to the countries cotton, timber and freight industries.
Missouri mules were even supplied to the British military during WWI and the U.S. army in WWII.”
Hearing the freight industry brought another question to mind. As soon as I found an opening I squeezed it in. “And what about that old borax commercial I've seen that talks about a twenty mule team?” I asked.
“Yes, the freight industry I just mentioned. Early freight wagons were pulled by teams of mules. A typical freight wagon had two or three wagons hitched together and they were pulled by a team of ten or more mules.
“The drivers of these wagons were called 'mule skinners.' They actually rode one of the mules. It was their job to keep their freight wagon under control and moving. They would guide the entire team with a single rein called a jerk line.”
“Seems mules were mighty important during this time in our countries history,” I remarked.
She smiled and threw her hands into the air, but stopped short of shouting hallelujah.
“Now you get it. Mules were important, but they have never been glamorized like horses. You don’t see too many magazines out there dedicated to mules. Farmers no longer plow with them. Loggers don't use them and cowboys don't ride them. They were misrepresented by the film industry. And the auto industry too, I might add.”
“How so?” I asked.
“Why is it that the strength of an automobile engine is rated by 'Horsepower'? Mules are much more powerful than a horse.”
“I see your point,” I replied. “Although mule power just doesn't sound right.”
“It might have, if they had started out using 'mule power'.” she stated. “These days horses enjoy the spotlight while the mule has been relegated to the back forty.”
That was Lois's final word on the subject. And with it, the interview was over. I had a new appreciation for mules and I had my story. It was time to head back to the office.
Yes, these days it is the horse that gets the glory but lets not forget about the mule.
They pulled our pioneers and their wagons across the country.
They pulled the trees that became the lumber to build our towns.
They pulled the freight wagons that delivered goods to these towns.
They pulled our plows across our fertile land and they packed our supplies during times of war.
If it wasn’t for the Missouri mule, our countries history would certainly read differently today.