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 Texas : Features : Columns : "It's All Trew"

There's more to Borax
than one might think

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew

One of my favorite history tidbits is the story of borax and the 20-mule teams used to pull the huge wagons through Death Valley.

My first memory of the subject came when mother brought home a small box of 20-Mule Team Borax soap. Greasy hands from servicing farm machinery could be cleaned instantly with the white gritty crystals. It also helped the old Maytag washing machine wash away the dirt and grime of farming from our overalls.

Something about the box sides showing pictures of the long string of mules pulling the outrageously huge wagons caught this little boy's fancy. When the box was empty, I cut out the pictures and pinned them on the wall of my room. Once I glued a picture to the side of a wooden block so I could push it along my imaginary desert trails. My trails wound in between the chunks of coal in our coal pile simulating mountains while I yelled "gee" and "haw" to my teams.

Later in life, I learned everything I could about the borax story. The white crystals are one of many forms of salt found mixed with other elements mined in Death Valley. It is mostly used in making glass, soaps, fire retardants and food preservation. Though not nearly as valuable as gold and silver, borax has retained a continuous market since about 1882 when the Harmony Borax Works was established in Death Valley.

One of the main costs of early borax production was transporting the product 165 miles from the mine in Death Valley to Mojave where it could be loaded on the railroad. The journey took 10 days, traveling 15 to 18 miles per day, with half the overnight camps dry where water had to be hauled in a tank pulled behind the loaded wagons.

One interesting detail of the road traveled included the Devil's Golf Course across a six-mile stretch of dry salt lake bed. Salt crystals had formed hard-as-glass pinnacles a few inches high which could penetrate a mule's hoof if stepped on. Chinese workers were hired to chop and level a path about four miles long for the mules and wagons to traverse the site.

Special wagons were designed and built to haul 20,000 pounds or more, using rear wheels 7 feet high with iron tires 8 inches wide. A fully loaded wagon weighed 31,800 pounds. With two wagons in tandem often pulling a water tank behind, the caravan might weigh more than 36 tons during its journey.

History states the company kept 20 such caravans on the road continually. A little mental arithmetic reveals with this amount of equipment plus other wagons hauling hay, grain and water to the overnight camps, the company probably owned more than 500 mules and draft horses at any one time.

A humorous thought here is, in the process of working 500 mules, and if cuss-words weighed pounds, those 20-huge wagons probably could not have hauled all the cuss-words used in a long day's work.

Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew"
August 4, 2009 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.

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