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

The truth behind 20-Mule Teams

by Delbert Trew
Delbert Trew

Panhandle history relates that during the construction of the "second courthouse" in Dimmitt the materials were being hauled from Hereford in five wooden-wheeled wagons being pulled in tandem by a large steam-powered tractor.

A dispute arose between the freighter and his employees while camped overnight by a creek. The trip was postponed abruptly the next morning when the freighter discovered all the axle nuts had been removed from the heavily-loaded wagons and the wheels would fall off if the wagons were moved. The dispute was quickly settled and the axle nuts found where they had been submerged in a gunny sack in nearby Terra Blanca Creek.

Many men have claimed they were the first to create and drive the famous 20-Mule Teams hauling Borax from Death Valley. It was 1882 before the truth was known and proved. Here is the story of that origin.

It seems in 1886 a freighter named Ed Stiles was hauling Borax from the Eagle Borax Works to Dagget, Calif. He was using a matched, twelve-mule hitch pulling a wagon when a man stopped him asking if the teams were for sale. Ed gave him the owner's name and continued on his way. On his return trip this same man showed him a bill of sale and took over the mules.

The teams and wagon were purchased, eight more mules added giving birth to the 20-Mule Team Hitch in history. Later, a second wagon was hitched in tandem doubling the tonnage hauled. In certain stretches of the journey a water wagon was hitched behind to carry water for the stock.

Since a wagon tongue long enough to hitch up ten teams was not possible a log chain was used instead. On straight stretches of trail there was no problem. However, on turns and curves some of the mules had to jump the chain as it moved back and forth across the turns.

This chain jumping was taught to rookie mules by tying them behind the wagons in route and dragging a short log chain on the ground where they had to walk. They quickly learned not to step on the chain and to jump across when necessary. For some reason, mules were easier to train about the chain than horses.

One driver rode the front wagon activating the brake handle and a long rope going to the brake handle of the wagon being towed behind. He also held the two reins controlling the lead mules by jerking the lines gently in the direction he wanted to go.

The second driver rode a large wheeler horse or mule next to the front wagon. He used a saddle, a long whip, a saddle bag of rocks and profanity to keep the stock pulling their share of the load. If necessary he dismounted, led or untangled the teams and made repairs.

By the way, the new owner credited with inventing the 20-Mule-Team Hitch was "Borax" Smith who later became a famous millionaire in Death Valley history.

Delbert Trew
"It's All Trew" April 6, 2010 Column
E-mail: trewblue@centramedia.net.

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