A Sept. 23 KidsPost article about the C&O Canal incorrectly described fully loaded barges as weighing as much as 2,200 tons. They weighed about 220 tons. (Published 9/24/04)

Which of these is true?

A. George Washington was not only the father of our country but the father of its mule business.

B. A mule is the offspring of a female horse and a male donkey.

C. A mule is about 11/2 times as strong as a horse.

D. Former president Jimmy Carter is getting a mule for his birthday.

E. All of the above.

Okay, veteran test-takers, you know the answer is "All of the above," but why, oh why, is KidsPost writing about mules? Because one of the Washington area's most famous and beloved mules -- Frances -- is retiring Saturday after more than 20 years spent pulling "The Georgetown" barge along the C&O Canal.

The work that Frances and six other mules do on the canal is just for fun. Two mules take turns pulling the 18-ton tour boat for three hours a day, four days a week. But when the C&O canal began operations in 1850, mules pulled barges weighing as much as 2,200 tons along the 1841/2 miles of the canal.

They worked in teams, eight hours a day, seven days a week, and were treated much like we treat guide dogs: as working animals but also pets.

That hasn't changed a lot over the years. Neil Adams, a C&O Canal park volunteer who has worked with Frances for 12 years, says he will miss her. "If we were just standing around, Frances would sometimes rest her chin on my shoulder. . . . I liked that," he said.

'Bicentennial Mule'

Frances was born in Fredericksburg, Virginia, in 1976 -- earning her the nickname "Bicentennial Mule." Before pulling barges, she was something of a cowgirl mule: She worked in a rodeo pulling the chuck wagon.

Thanks to their parents, mules are ideal for farming and pulling canal boats. From their donkey dads (jacks), they get keen intelligence, long ears and small hooves, which make them sure-footed. From their mare moms, they get strength and endurance. Mules have a reputation as stubborn creatures, but that's probably a bit unfair. Among their biggest fans are two U.S. presidents.

George Washington's fondness for mules dated back to the Revolution, when he became convinced they were far better work animals than horses or oxen. He started to breed mules at his Virginia plantation after receiving one as a gift from King Charles III of Spain. By 1799 there were 57 mules at Mount Vernon.

Washington wasn't alone in liking mules. Former president and peanut farmer Jimmy Carter "always thought the mule was the most important animal on a farm," said Fred Sanchez, chief ranger at the Jimmy Carter National Historical Site in Georgia. So the former president was "ecstatic" to hear that Frances will retire to the farm where Carter grew up.

No Surprise

Carter "always said he would love to have a mule," said Sanchez. "We wanted to find a mule who deserved to have a good home to retire to." (Mules live to be about 35 years old.) The National Park Service had hoped to surprise Carter with Frances on Oct. 1, his 80th birthday, but the news leaked. The plan now is for Frances to make her way south by the beginning of November.

In her final weeks on the canal in Georgetown, Frances has kept busy with a few barge trips. Ranger Kathy Kupper says Frances deserves a nice retirement but she thinks the mule will miss her job. "She always wants to work, always wants to pull."

-- Tracy Grant

Frances has been pulling barges on the canal for 20 years.