Have you heard the story of the Borax 20-Mule Team traveling from Death Valley to Merced? This is one of Merced’s best forgotten stories. It is “forgotten” because it has not been documented in written history up until now.
In the Courthouse Museum photo archive, we have a fascinating collection of reprints of glass plate negatives; many of them are attributed to Frank Day Robinson, a prolific photographer in Merced from the early 1910s to late 1930s. Some of these prints came to us unidentified and misidentified. In this case, we have three pictures of the Borax 20-Mule Team marching on Merced streets taken in an unknown year.
Borax is mostly known as a laundry booster, but when it first was mined commercially in the 19th century, it also was used as an antiseptic, a disinfectant and an ingredient in cosmetics. In order to transport borax out of the mines in Death Valley to the nearest railroad spur, a 20-mule team was used and a one-way trip often took 10 days. This team of 18 mules and 2 horses attached to gigantic wagons gained fame in the 1880s. The length of this vehicle was about 176 feet. Just as celebrated as the mule team was its driver, “Borax Bill,” who would guide the draft animals with a single jerk line.
This extraordinary vehicle was great advertising for Francis Marion Smith’s Pacific Coast Borax Co. After railroads replaced teams in the desert, Smith would send “Borax Bills” and 20-mule teams to major cities throughout the country to promote the company’s laundry product with free samples. As the three pictures in our collection show, this particular mule team came to Merced in the early 20th century. It paraded on both 16th Street and 17th Street, drawing a huge crowd, but it was unclear when the pictures were taken.
A careful study of the 17th Street photo sheds some light. This collection of photos must have been taken after 1912, since the El Capitan Hotel and Shaffer Building were built, streets were paved and power lines were installed. The pictures also fit in with the time period when Robinson was active in Merced. However, to pinpoint the exact date was very difficult. One option would be to go through old newspapers, but that would take quite a while to accomplish. Here is my shortcut, which only took me a few minutes to determine the date when the Borax 20-Mule Team paraded through Merced.
The California Digital Newspaper Collection (http://cdnc.ucr.edu/cgi-bin/cdnc) is a great free site for old newspaper articles. The collection is easily searchable by using key words. Although it does not have any Merced County newspapers, Merced-area news would occasionally make it into other newspapers such as the Sacramento Union and the Los Angeles Herald. Although the Borax 20-Mule Team’s visit to Merced was not a big enough story to be included in other papers, the team’s visit to other California cities did make it into this collection of digitized newspapers.
For example, after days of delay due to bad weather, the much anticipated Borax 20-Mule Team’s cross-country tour began in Los Angeles on Jan. 22, 1917, as the Los Angeles Herald reported. Then, it was in Sacramento for a one-day exhibition on Feb. 13, 1917. This would be the time frame for the Merced visit. It was some time after Jan. 22 and before Feb. 13 as the team appeared to be traveling north from Los Angeles. Merced has to be one of the stops during this trip. This discovery significantly narrowed my search to a few days and looking up the newspaper within this time frame was much easier.
It did not take long before I came across an article in the Merced Evening Sun dated Feb. 3, 1917. As the story headlined “Famous Trade Mark Comes to Life Today on Merced Streets,” the event reportedly took place on Saturday, Feb. 3, 1917. Now you know about the Borax 20-Mule Team’s forgotten visit to Merced and when those photos were taken!
For more stories about Merced County’s interesting past, keep a lookout for the next Museum Notes column. Together, we will solve another mystery.
Don’t forget to visit our current “Let’s Google That Old Road” exhibit at the Courthouse Museum.
The museum is in the Courthouse Park and is open Wednesday through Sunday from 1 to 4 p.m. Guided tours are available and admission is free. From all of us at the Courthouse Museum, have a happy and safe Fourth of July.
Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.