I love the look on the front of a box of Borax. A reminder of yesteryear. And that’s what you find in Boron, CA where the twenty mule team really existed.
There’s not much out here around Jawbone and Mojave except mining it appears. And that’s what the town of Boron is about. We drove thru on a windy Sunday afternoon, but I have a suspicion that in this part of California and into western Arizona every day of the week is windy.
We wandered around the outside of the Twenty Mule Team Museum, checking out antique machinery.
This is one of the original miner’s cabins out at the Baker Mine site. It housed Pacific Coast Borax employees; usually one or two unmarried men. Built in 1929 it was of wooden frame construction with a wooden floor and a double roof for insulation purposes, against the summer sun. (maybe a second roof on the bus would be a good idea?)
A wood or coal burning stove provided heat in the winter. There was electricity but no running water. It cost $5 per week for room-and-board. The area at Baker Mine was a single man’s camp.
This form of housing was standard in the 1960’s, when the company (now know as U.S. Borax) ended their policy of providing company owned housing. The town of Boron, previously non-existent, had become a well established town and therefore the company housing was no longer in demand.
Off On the Wrong Foot
It didn’t take us long to wander around outside. There were few signs describing what we were looking at. The miner’s cabin was about the only item outside that have any information about it. It was left to us to figure it out on our own, or just to wander by.
We took a stroll across the street to the far-newer huge dump truck parked next to a shiny old firetruck. Again, little information.
We were returning to our vehicles, expecting to drive out of town when the dude from the museum we’d already been to said we could get access to see the aircrafts next door, just outside of Saxon Aerospace Museum. So we took a look around there.
Fortunately my hubby used to fly his own plane so he’s somewhat informed about aeronautical stuff…unlike me who doesn’t give a damn…except that I like to fly. That’s as far as my interest lies. Let me fly and get me to my destination safely, Thank You.
Everette taught the kids a few things (I think) while I plopped myself down in the van to bask in the sun and anxious to get back driving. To somewhere more interesting.
The displays outside provided so little information alongside of the artifacts we didn’t expect anything substantial inside the Chamber of Commerce/Museum so we skipped it. Everette just popped his head in to say “Thanks” for letting us checkout the aircrafts.
But then Everette motioned for us to come inside…a whole new world opened up to us.
The guy brought out different kinds of rocks, revealed interesting facts & started quizzing the kids about stuff. We were hooked, so we explored the totally-informative museum…so different from the sparse info we found outside. This was closer to information overload!
Deep underneath the Mojave desert is one of the richest and largest deposits of borax on Earth. This mineral was discovered in 1881 by a prospector named Aaron Winters. He sold his claims to a San Francisco businessman William Tell Coleman. Coleman, with the help of Francis Marion “Borax” Smith set up mining operations.
Used for thousands of years in ceramics and in the working of gold, borax previously had come from Tibet and Italy. It’s discovery in California’s Death Valley resulted in a huge increase in its availability and use in the USA for various industrial processes and as a popular household cleaner.
With a growth in demand, a practical and economical method was devised for freighting borax ore from the vast dry lake beds in Death Valley to the nearest railhead at Mojave…165 miles of unimaginable heat, barren wasteland and treacherous mountains.
In 1883 Coleman commissioned the construction of the largest freight wagons of their day so he could transport his find. The ingenuity of designers & builders, and the incredible stamina and perseverance of the teamsters, swampers and animals was astounding.
Wagon trains ran from 1883 to 1889 during which time they transported 20 million pounds of borax on that 165 mile trek… a perilous 10-day journey (20 days return) out of Death Valley, over the Panamint Mtns and across the Mojave desert. Every day they walked 15-18 miles in this god-forsaken land.
The gaps between natural water supplies were filled by caches of water transported in 500 gallon iron tanks on wheels. Iron…because wooden tanks would have dried up and fallen apart when empty! Water, hay and grain were spotted a day’s journey apart. Natural springs were improved by digging out and cleaning. If the natural springs were too far from the road, they were piped down. The men ate mostly bacon which they carried along on the wagons.
It was an incredible undertaking to design and build wagons that were capable of hauling heavy loads of borax over the rough desert and treacherous mountain trails. An untimely breakdown could be the difference between life-and-death for both the men and the animals.
Coleman had ten wagons built, capable of holding over ten tons of borax each. Built in Mojave for $900 each, the wagons had rear wheels seven feet high and front wheels that were five feet high. Each wheel had steel tires 8 inches wide and 1 inch thick. The axles were made of solid steel bars 3.5 inches square. Wagon beds were 16 feet long, 4 feet wide and 6 feet deep. Empty, they weighed 7,800 pounds!
Two loaded wagons plus the water tank (which held 1,200 gallons) weighed a whopping 73,200 pounds. Astounding!! That’s 36.5 tons. For reference, our bus is 12.5 tons with all our stuff in it!! Those creatures hauled nearly 3 of our skoolies-worth!
The Mighty Mule
Staunch, sturdy, strong and durable…mules are intelligent and hardy animals. These beasts of burden played a vital role in the development and building of the USA.
Not all the mules of the team were trained the same. There were some key players in these long strings of work animals, chosen and trained for special jobs…like leading the others through treacherous curves on mountain passes.
Leaders were 2 mules chosen for their intelligence. They were the ones to lead the others.
Swing team was made up of 10 mules that were workers…they didn’t require much special training. However, they did need to recognize their own name and be quick to respond to commands to “pull” and “stop”.
Pointers, sixes and eights were a total of 6 mules specially trained to leap over the chain when the mule train turned a corner. They had to respond to commands by name. In turning a corner, their training prevented the wagon from going over a cliff or into a bank.
Wheelers were usually horses but could be mules…the largest and strongest of the animals. The driver could ride “nigh wheeler” (the left-hand of these 2) and from this position he could operate the brake on the front wagon.
As the team started around a sharp curve, the chain tended to be pulled into a straight line between the lead mules and the wagon. Therefore, in order to keep the chain going around the curve, the pointers, sixes and eights were ordered to leap the chain and pull at an angle away from the curve. They would step along side-ways until the corner had been turned.
Each twenty mule team crew consisted of 2 men: a driver (called the muleskinner or teamster) and a swamper.
The muleskinner drove his team from his seat in the box of the first wagon. If it was rough going, then he drove from the back of the left-hand animal nearest the wheel.
The only way he controlled the animals was with his voice and the jerkline, the long rope running through a collar ring on each left-hand mule up to the leaders. A steady pull turned the team to the left. A series of jerks sent it to the right. So by basically steering the lead left-mule (which was actually set slightly ahead of the mule to its right) the driver could control the entire twenty mule team.
Oh, by the way, they weren’t all mules. Only 18 of them were; 2 were usually horses, the strongest animals who could handle being in the position to be hitched to the wagon. It would be too long of a name to called “18 mules plus 2 horses” so its the Twenty Mule Team, instead.
Besides driving, the driver needed to be a veterinarian as he was responsible to cure any animal that got sick on the road. As if that wasn’t enough (along with the strength and great skill needed for driving) he also needed to be a wheel-wright, to make minor repairs on the wagons.
The swampers job was to help apply the brakes on downgrades, help stimulate the mules on upgrades, gather fuel, cook, wash dishes, unharness the mules at the end of each day, and do what ever other chores needed to be done.
Driver’s earned $100-120 per month. Swampers made about $75.
These men lived hazardous lives. There wasn’t just the heat and desolation to deal with, but also rattlesnakes, the general risk of injury, and the dangers of the wagons…like brakes giving out on a steep grade. Imagine 36 tones barreling down the hill, bodies flailing in tangled messes. Horrid.
These men were known to be silent, short-tempered men. The loneliness, monotony and hardships of their work didn’t soften them at all! There are stories of their environment getting the better of them, with quarrels breaking out between the swamper and muleskinner, ending with murder or lynchings.
Name That Mule
Most muleskinners treated their mules well and could identify them by their personalities. Giving them a name that sounded completely different than any other name was very likely.
Hitching wagons in pairs or even in 3’s was a common practice. There are photographs dating back to the 1860’s of wagons hitched in tandem pulled by a long line of teams of mules…long before the Death Valley era. Often they were referred to as “big teams” or “long-line teams” of 12-24 or more mules and/or horses, usually in pairs. “Twenty Mule Team” wasn’t really used until after a young newspaper man named Stephen Mather suggested that it be used as the name of the brand and associated it with the fearsome desert named “Death”. That’s when the company created THE Twenty Mule Team and logo.
When we pulled up outside the museum to discover whether the twenty mule team really existed or not I thought maybe we’d get a 10 minute stretch-your-leg break. Instead, we had a big unschooling opportunity exploring at Boron for probably at least an hour-and-half.
I love when that happens. We’re served up a wonderful learning opportunity without having to do anything except show-up serendipitously with a willing heart to be present & embrace it.
I’ll never look at a box of Twenty Mule Team Borax the same ever again!
PS Checkout Julia Roberts as Erin Brockovich. “She brought a small town to its feet and a huge company to its knees.” This is a movie based on a true story at the town of Hinkley, AZ…just 30 miles due west of the town of Boron. Rated R for language it was definitely lots of sexual talk/connotations. Not high action at all, but a good movie nonetheless…just not family content. Everette and I watched with our teens while the three youngest watched something else.
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