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Mule power used to install fiber-optic cable

February 10, 1997

SPRINGFIELD, Mo. (AP) _ No manner of modern mechanical technology could get over or around the rugged terrain confronting electricians trying to install fiber optic cable through the Ozarks.

So they shifted their sights from high-tech to low-tech and hired Festus, Jake, Red and I.B. _ four Missouri mules _ to string 40 miles of cable through southwestern Missouri.

``Today’s thought is `fast and done quick and make the big money,‴ said mule skinner James King, who works the mules for B&L Electrical Contractors. ``A lot of people have forgot the fastest way to get through the country is on a mule or a horse.″

Even through city traffic, the mules are getting the job done.

The idea first came about when Empire District Electric Co. was looking for contractors to install fiber optic cable. The cable was to run along the path of a power line strung in 1912. More than 80 years later, it was deemed inaccessible to vehicles in most places because of steep hills, trees or other impediments, such as chain-link fences.

B&L submitted a bid based on doing the work with mules. The estimate was tricky since the company had never used mules. And if they couldn’t do the job, a backup plan would have cost much more.

``This is extremely rugged terrain. You couldn’t get any motorized vehicles in there,″ said Clint Lam, manager of B&L. ``You could build a road through there, but cost-wise, it would be so expensive.″

Empire didn’t know the estimate was based on mule power. But when they learned of the idea, it seemed logical, said Darrell Wilson, Empire’s telecommunications foreman. He told colleagues at a recent training seminar about the mules’ success.

``Everybody thought I was joking,″ Wilson said. ``They thought I meant an ATV, some mechanical 4-wheel drive. They didn’t really think it was a four-legged animal. They were a little surprised when I said, `No, I mean a real mule.‴

The mule skinners hook one end of the cable to an overhead pole and knot the other end to a mule’s saddle. Then the animal pulls.

All-terrain vehicles are prone to tipping on uneven surfaces, while mules are sure-footed and can jump creeks or chain-link fences. In fact, they worked so well in the rough stuff, they were kept on even when the line reached Springfield, the state’s third-largest metropolitan area.

``I think we’re going to try to vote in a new position in our contract for mule skinner,″ crew foreman John Agee joked.

Dr. Melvin Bradley, of Columbia, a retired University of Missouri professor and an expert on mules, was not surprised to learn of the mules’ success.

``The mule will go places, over banks and rough terrain and stand up and be able to pull that cable through where horses will have trouble,″ he said.

Festus, at 1,250 pounds the largest of the crew, drew curious glances from motorists as he and skinner King recently hauled cable through exhaust-stained snowbanks near a busy city intersection. Festus wasn’t fazed, though he was a bit trailer-sick from the 30-mile commute from Galena.

``This is his first day on the job,″ the hard-hatted King said from the saddle where he wraps the rope or cable being pulled by the mule. Festus can tow up to 14,000 feet of cable, a load weighing more than 1 ton.

Some people who saw the mules at work didn’t know exactly what they were, which King found remarkable. After all, mules were made Missouri’s state animal in 1995.

```Look, ma _ it’s a horse!‴ King said, mimicking what he’s heard from children passing the work crew. ``It’s a good old Missouri mule.″

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