Historical Treasure: The true story of the 20-mule team and borax

Tribune-Star/Jim AvelisCleaning up: Laundry products are the subject of this week’s Historical Treasure article.

The word “borax” does not bring visions of instant wealth or fame like diamonds or gold. Yet without borax, modern life would be much more difficult. The 20-mule team is not an advertising idea created by an ad agency; the real truth is stranger than fiction.

Borate deposits were found in California in the late 1890s. Until that time, America had to import its borates from China and Turkey. The demand for borax was insatiable, as it was used in the making of glass, ceramics, detergents, soap and other industrial items. The almost-pure deposits were located in Death Valley, one of the hottest and driest places on earth. To make matters worse, there were no railroads nearby to move the mineral up and out of the area. A crude road of sorts was blasted and dug out the rocky, sandy terrain so single small wagon trains could travel 163 miles to the nearest railroad junction at Mojave. Obviously, there had to be a better way.

According to legend, two men, a young muleskinner — or mule driver — named Ed Stiles and J.W.S. Perry, local superintendent of Coleman’s Borax Co., came up with the idea of hitching two 10-mule teams together to make one 100-yard-long, 20-mule team. The mules pulled two huge custom-made wagons, each loaded with 10 tons of borax. A smaller accompanying wagon of supplies and food was hitched behind the two big wagons. Together they made the 20-day round trip between 1883 and 1889, hauling more than 20 million pounds out of Death Valley. Not one animal was lost, nor did one wagon break down.

When Colman’s Borax Co. was acquired by Frances Marion Smith in 1890, the new company, Pacific Coast Borax, used the name “20 Mule Team Borax” to increase sales, but did not put it on the box.

Finally, the name was added to box that already had the famous sketch of the mule team on it. This was done by Frances Marion Smith, who had to be persuaded that it — and not his name — should be on the box. The 20-mule team symbol was first used in 1891 and registered in 1894. By then the actual use of the 20 mule teams to haul borax had faded into history, replaced by a newly built railroad spur.

Yet that was not the end of the 20-mule teams. The teams appeared at special events ranging from the St. Louis World’s Fair in 1904 to President Wilson’s inauguration in 1916. In 1940, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer studios produced a movie titled “Twenty Mule Team”’ which proved to be as popular as the mule team that promoted it in 40 cities. The latest appearance of the mule team occurred in the Jan, 1, 1999, Tournament of Roses Parade in Pasadena.

The Pacific Coast Borax Co. also sponsored “Death Valley Days,” a radio — and eventually television — anthology that dramatized true stories of the old American West, particularly the Death Valley area. The program was created in 1930s by Ruth Woodman, and it played on radio until 1945. From 1952 to 1975, “Death Valley Days” was produced as a syndicated television series. The television show was sponsored primarily by Pacific Coast Borax Co., which later became U.S Borax.

So when you are visiting the Historical Museum, see if you can find the box of borax in the general store. I promise you will be amazed how a box of powdered rock could become an enduring American legend.

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