It’s not often that a town of just 2,250 hardy inhabitants has two museums devoted to the same subject. The town is Boron, Calif., in the Mojave Desert, not far from Death Valley National Park, and the subject is boron, a mineral mined in an open pit just outside of town. What could be duller than that, one might wonder. Watching a cactus grow?
Downtown, at the Twenty Mule Team Museum, things actually get interesting as visitors encounter the history of transporting boron, the fifth element on the periodic table, which we eat and which is used in making glass and cleaning products. Anyone who watched the small-screen TV show “Death Valley Days,” with Ronald Reagan, will remember commercials for borax that featured a team of 20 mules.
In 1881, borates were found near Furnace Creek Ranch in Death Valley, and by 1884 borax was being processed at Harmony Borax Works. Some 40 men produced 3 tons of borax a day. Two enormous ore wagons, a water wagon of 1,200 gallons, two men and 20 mules crossed 165 miles of searing hot desert to get their load to the train depot near Mojave. The journey took 10 days. The mule train was guided by a muleskinner who sat atop the rearmost right mule and used a 120-foot rein to drive the team 16 to 18 miles each day. The wagons had 3.5-inch steel axles connecting 7-foot-high wheels that rode on 8-inch-wide steel tires.
Along with displaying mining gear and artwork, the Twenty Mule Team Museum has a kitchen and beauty shop typical of the 1930s. The museum is open seven days a week and there is no admission charge.
Just north of Boron is the Borax Visitor Center, set in a working mine. The facility is the largest open pit mine in California and supplies nearly half of the world’s demand for refined borates. The visitor center features a life-size sculpture of 20 mules pulling an original ore wagon and plenty of history about borax. Parking for RVs is available on-site, but there is a $3 parking fee for all vehicles.
If you’re in the area during the first part of November, be sure to take in the Death Valley ’49ers Encampment, a five-day event that celebrates the spirit of the 1849 gold rush wagon trains that crossed Death Valley. This year, the encampment runs Nov. 7-11 and features a wagon train, a chuck wagon lunch and Western fiddlers, a tall tales contest, wheelbarrow race, gold panning and more.