Animatronic mule team preserved from a restaurant display.
Animatronic mule team preserved from a restaurant display.

Twenty Mule Team Museum

Field review by the editors.

Boron, California

In the scrubby void between Mojave and Barstow sits a small town, Boron, with a surprising conflux of roadside attractions. The Borax Visitor Center lies outside of town, and on the main street there's a barrel-shaped food stand, a fighter jet parked in front of an aerospace museum, three concrete tortoises, and the Big Yellow Dump Truck. And the Twenty Mule Team Museum.

Exhibit of Borax cleaning products.
Exhibit of Borax cleaning products.

If you find yourself driving by Boron, take the exit. Your reward awaits.

We were there in 1994, investigating a rumored King of Toilet Seat Arts. Outsider artist John A. Kostopoulos lived in a house he claimed the government was trying to cut in half. For hours we swam in his whirlpool of improbable tales and toilets.

A few years later, Kostopoulos had passed away; his toilet seats were immediately carted to the local dump. A Roadside dreamer lost. But Boron had other virtues. On a recent drive, we spent time in the town's Twenty Mule Team Museum, which documents local history and its connection with borax mining. Volunteers staff the museum and can conduct brief tours, or dispatch you with a self-guide.

In 1915, the world's richest deposit of borax was discovered in the Mojave Desert. Since the late 19th century, borax had been used as a "safe" substance in cleaning products, detergents, cosmetics (and later in fire retardants and boron compounds for nuke plant radiation shields). The Pacific Coast Borax Company knew they had a laundry day gold mine, and began underground ore production in 1927.

Twenty Mule Team Museum.
Twenty Mule Team Museum.

A few miles east, the small village of Amargo offered a railroad siding where ore could ship out. Amargo changed its name to Boron, as company offices and a new railroad depot were built. The population swelled as cafes, churches, schools, and a hospital filled in along Highway 466.

Boron became the "Borax Capital of the World," and experienced a boom in traffic and commerce into the 1950s, when it had six gas stations. Borax tunneling operations evolved into the high volume open pit mine, which was officially dedicated in 1957.

George
George "Walking George" Swain's size 14EEE boots.

But Boron wasn't just a mining town. It was near Edwards Air Force Base, where America's pilots flew experimental aircraft in the 1940s-50s. Pancho Barnes -- female pilot extraordinaire and owner of the "Right Stuff" hangout Happy Bottom Riding Club -- spent her last years living in Boron.

Bypassed!

In 1972, the new 58 freeway was completed outside of the town. Traffic simply sped by, and businesses dried up. In 1974, the main Pacific Coast Borax building burned down during a series of union strikes; arson was suspected. Pacific Coast Borax Company had become U.S. Borax and moved most operations from town to the mine site. The school complex closed in 1982.

Like any community bypassed by progress and good luck, the leaders of Boron knew they had to entice visitors off the highway. Volunteers raised funds for the history museum. An old U.S. Borax boss's house was converted into the Twenty Mule Team Museum, which opened in 1984.

The town is proud of its heritage. The museum displays typical homesteader and pioneer items, but also unique borax artifacts. A painted glamour portrait of a mule hangs near a store mannequin in mine coveralls and a helmet. Visitors ring an antique mine bell and learn the signals for raising and lowering the shaft elevator. A display explains how the radio and TV western series Death Valley Days was sponsored each week by 20 Mule Team Borax Soap and hosted by Ronald Reagan.

The yard at the Twenty Mule Team Museum.
The yard at the Twenty Mule Team Museum.

Glass exhibit cases and random arrangements reveal artifacts and and offer mysteries: unidentified prehistoric bird prints left in volcanic ash from 18 million years ago; a bunch of miner carbide lamps; a miner's canary cage (no canary, stuffed or otherwise). A brass fixture from the original volunteer fire department is labeled as a "Suicide Nozzle" (pressurized water might seize control of the hose and beat its holder to death). A 1930s model kitchen arrays a housewife's dream selection of Borax products.

Animatronic Twenty Mule Team

The highlight of the museum is its Animatronic Twenty Mule Team pulling a train of borax ore wagons. It was originally built for and featured in a restaurant in Van Nuys, California, and according to museum staff, "designed by a team of engineers." It was donated to the museum, where its many mule heads jerk and ears flop, and a little muppet wagon driver pumps his arms. Ask a docent to plug it in for you. [Here's our video of the Animatronic Mule Team

Neglected poker game in the miner's cabin.
Neglected poker game in the miner's cabin.

The famous living mule teams were real, but only for six years, way back in the 1880s. Eighteen mules and two horses formed the team to haul ore -- ten tons per wagon -- out of mines and across the Mojave Desert on a rough 165 mile drive that took ten days.

The 20 Mule Team Borax brand was trademarked in the 1890s, and long after the mine mules were gone it became a household name, with teams dispatched for promotional appearances, like the Clydesdales. The museum presents an array of bleaches, soaps and cleaning products: Boraxo, Borateem, and Teem. (If you want to find out more about the company, and see a full-size non-robotic mule team replica, visit the Borax Visitor Center).

Colorful Characters

At the museum, the King of Toilet Seat Arts is barely remembered, but other local individuals are enshrined.

Who was the town's most colorful character? According to our guide, that would be eccentric genius George "Walking George" Swain -- a career chemist with Borax, documented in a museum display. Boron kids gave him the nickname "Walking George" after seeing him wander everywhere with a box, picking up discarded cans and bottles. He lived in abandoned worker cabins, and then in the Boron Motel. An opera buff with a photographic memory, Swain was profiled in 1979 on the TV show "Real People." His size 14EEE hiking boots are on display. In one newspaper clipping, he's credited with "putting Boron on the map."

Museum Yard

In the lot next to the museum visitors can take a walk to view 30 artifacts, including a miners cabin, and a simulated mine entrance. There are also the pitiful remains of Billy Brock's Bottle House, apparently another defunct roadside attraction in town. It was built by Brock to house his collection of circus memorabilia from when he worked for Ringling Brothers-Barnum Bailey. After Brock died, his collection was donated to the Ringling museum in Florida, and his bottle house was demolished.

We also recommend a visit to next door to the Vernon P. Saxon Aerospace Museum, opened in 2003.

Also see: Animatronic Mule Team

Twenty Mule Team Museum

Address:
26962 Twenty Mule Team Rd, Boron, CA
Directions:
South side of Hwy 58, just west of Boron Ave.
Phone:
760-762-0012
RA Rates:
Worth a Detour
Save to My Sights

Nearby Offbeat Places

Saxon Aerospace Museum - The Right StuffSaxon Aerospace Museum - The Right Stuff, Boron, CA - < 1 mi.
Three Concrete Tortoise SculpturesThree Concrete Tortoise Sculptures, Boron, CA - < 1 mi.
Barrel Building of BoronBarrel Building of Boron, Boron, CA - < 1 mi.
In the region:
Comfort Women Statue, Glendale, CA - 68 mi.

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August 20, 2019

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