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In the Mojave Desert, in a small town called Boron, you will find the Twenty Mule Team Museum.  It’s not much to look at by big city standards but when you look a little closer you will see the love and dedication of a community that has preserved a bit of history and the way of life from days gone by.  This tiny museum was built “the Boron way.”

Over a period of about 8 years, the community banded together, hosting potlucks and other fundraisers to buy the land for the museum.  A generous neighbor, Paul Sigman, gave an original house from the first borax mine site to be used as the museum building.  Weekly work parties then refurbished the house, preparing it for its new job as the borax museum.  On August 4, 1984, the museum officially opened to the public.

You may have to drive for miles across the desert to get here and it may be tiny, but this museum is full of the history of borax, the twenty mule team brand and tradition, and the love of the townspeople of Boron, California.

 

Boy, girl, and dog standing in front of a large illuminated photo of a 20 mule team and a small replica of a 20 mule team wagon
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The people at the Twenty Mule Team Museum were super friendly! They even let us bring the dog inside which was great. Summer in the desert is HOT!

 

 

What is the history of borax?

According to the Twenty Mule Team Museum website, in 1881, Aaron and Rosie Winters met a travelling prospector who told them about “cottonball”. According to this prospector, this mineral was in high demand.  The next day, the Winters rode out to the nearby lakebed which was covered in white minerals. A quick test verified that this lakebed was flush with the highly sought-after borax. The Winters wasted no time in selling their claim for $20,000 to a San Francisco businessman, William T. Coleman and news of the discovery spread quickly.  The borax industry in Death Valley was born!

Coleman opened Harmony Borax Works near what is now called Furnace Creek and paid Chinese workers $1.50 per day to scrape the cottonball ore from the desert, working in the 100°+ heat of Death Valley summer.

Once collected, it was too hot to process the ore onsite so the processing was done 60 miles away at Amaragosa Borax Works in Shoshone, California.

Between the Harmony and Amaragosa plants, nearly two million tons of borax were processed each year but the nearest rail line was 165 miles away in Mojave so Coleman needed a way to move the borax from the mine to the train.

The solution? A twenty mule team!

model of a twenty mule train team displayed on a large rock crystal to represent travel across the desert and mountains
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For six years twenty mule teams were used to haul 20 million tons of borax out of Death Valley, over the Panamint Mountains, and across the Mojave desert without a single breakdown. The teams traveled 15 to 18 miles per day in a twenty-day roundtrip route between the rail line and the mine.

 

 

What is a 20 Mule Team?

A twenty mule team was actually two ten mule teams hitched together into a 100-foot long team. Eighteen mules and two horses were hitched to three wagons.  Two of the wagons carried ore and the third wagon carried water and food for the animals and drivers.  There were two men on the team – the muleskinner (driver) and the swamper.

Want to see some mule team action?

 

 

What is borax?

Borax is used as a laundry and cleaning agent in some homes still today but it has mostly commercial uses in glass, electronics, agriculture, and energy.

It has had a recent resurgence as an ingredient in slime though concerns about contact safety eventually sent some people looking for an alternative.

This video shows the world-wide reach of borax and the many ways it is used today.

You can also read more about what it is and what it’s used for on the Twenty Mule Team website.

 

 

The Museum

Okay, now that you know a little more about borax, it’s time to go to the museum!

sign that reads "twenty mule team museum"
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There is old mining equipment outside the museum as well but on a hot summer day you may want to skip this part!

 

This museum, like many other small town museums I have visited, includes local history in addition to the main topic.

museum display of beauty salon tools and chair including hanging electric curling rods
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One of my favorite parts of small town museums is the local history that is included regardless of the central topic of the museum itself.

 

Don’t worry though – there is plenty of information about the mule teams and the history of borax!

Lifelike painting of a mule against a backdrop of tan desert hills
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This mule painting was done in 1986 by Tom Palmore.

 

museum display showing the packaging of various borax products through history
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Borax can be used to make lots of things!

 

a model of a twenty mule train stretches the entire length of a room at the museum
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As you can see from this picture, the twenty mule team train was quite long! Can you spot Vacation Mouse way back there by the wagon?

 

museum display of equipment used in underground mines and photos of miners id badges and equipment in the mine
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Mining for borax is done mostly in open pit mines but also sometimes in underground mines.

 

That’s just a small sampling of what the museum has to offer.  You’ll have to go see for yourself what else is there!  And don’t forget to buy some borax samples to bring home as a souvenir.

 

Sharing is Caring!

Pin this post to let others know about this museum.

Graphic of three photos- 1. 20 mule team wagon model displayed on borax crystal, 2. museum display of borax products, 3. Twenty Mule Team Museum sign
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Mules, minerals, and history – what’s not to like? Pin this for your next trip and share it with your friends!

 

Looking for more desert fun?  Check out my other posts…

We visited the Twenty Mule Team Museum during Big Trip 13.  We also stopped at the World’s Largest Thermometer in Baker, California, and even saw Bonnie and Clyde’s car and death shirt.  Check out our Big Trip Lucky 13 road trip summary to see all the places we stopped (both in and out of the desert!).

big trip 13 is at worlds tallest thermometer in baker ca
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It’s 96 degrees before noon at the world’s tallest thermometer in Baker, CA.

 

Better yet, plan a winter trip to the desert.  It’s much more enjoyable when you’re not melting!  Read about how we saw snow in Death Valley here.

scenic view along a road - desert scenery alongside and snowy mountain peaks in the distance, grey storm clouds overhead
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One of the things I love about the desert is that you can see for miles! Plenty of snow on the peaks here at Death Valley during our visit.

 

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This is fun, right?  Want to stay up to date on all our latest adventures?  Click here (or on the photo below) to sign up for occasional email updates.

 

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Twenty Mule Team Museum via @behindeveryday
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3 Comments

  1. They let you bring your dog inside, AND it’s in a town named for an element – that sounds like my kind of place!

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