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.
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!
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.
Okay, now that you know a little more about borax, it’s time to go to the museum!
This museum, like many other small town museums I have visited, includes local history in addition to the main topic.
Don’t worry though – there is plenty of information about the mule teams and the history of borax!
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.
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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!).
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.
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