In my college days, we scattered handfuls of borax along the baseboards of our roach-infested apartment in the hopes that the white powder would cause the insects to implode. The stuff seemed to work better than bug spray, but it always looked suspiciously like we were preparing to snort lines of cocaine off the floor.

It wasn’t until many years later, when I was settled in the role of suburban mom in a thankfully roach-free house, that I discovered the more conventional use for borax as a laundry additive. It may make may whites whiter—I haven’t noticed. The substance has proven invaluable for me for neutralizing underarm odors from smelly shirts. Sometimes borax can be hard to find in stores, so when I do spot it on a shelf, I usually grab a couple of boxes. And the last time I did, I noticed some writing on the box explaining the story behind the name 20 Mule Team Borax.Kate Dolan writes about the story behind the name 20 mule team borax

Given the choice between reading arcane scraps of history and accomplishing necessary housework, I will pick the history any day. And I loved reading about the borax mules so much that I decided I had to share the story. But it also got me thinking about the business of mining and the strange value of minerals.

First, the mules.

In the 1800s, teams of mules hauled borax from remote mines in Death Valley across the dessert to the nearest railroad at Mojave. But the journey was long and hard, and the standard teams of 8-10 mules really struggled to haul the load. The borax company history printed on the box credits “a man named Ed Stiles” with the idea of using two teams of mules to make the trip.

Two teams of mules—20 mules—and their load of borax made a conveyance that stretched out for nearly 100 feet. And that 20-mule train took ten days to carry a ten ton load of borax on its one-way journey through the desert.

The system worked well, at least from a human perspective (there are no surviving first hand accounts from the mules). But to keep up with the times, in 1894 the mules were replaced by a locomotive. However, the power of steam in the desert was apparently no match for the power of 20 mules. The engine broke down and was hauled back to town by the mules it was meant to replace.

20 Mule Team Borax is celebrating 125 years of cleaning up America’s messes. The fact that so much effort was expended to mine and transport a mineral used for cleaning products reminds me that I know very little about mining. I still think of mines as deep dark places where men risk their lives to find veins of gold or dig out sooty coal deposits.

And yet I know better after touring the old Bon Ami feldspar mine in the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina. Feldspar is a soft white mineral that cleans without scratching, and mining for this commodity kept the region going during the lank years of the Great Depression. Families had no money for gold or jewels but did not skimp when it came to cleaning. I’m guessing it was the same with borax.

So this makes me wonder about the value of the things we seek. Salt, borax and feldspar are not kept behind glass cases in high-end stores the way gold and certain other minerals are. Yet at various points in history, salt became unbelievably valuable for its uses in preserving food. Will that time ever come again?

Minerals like feldspar and borax serve a useful household purpose—gold does not. But if you’ve ever watched the show “Gold Rush” you know that men are willing to devote well more than the power of 20 mules to extract it from ground.

It makes me wonder if often times we waste our mules.

It also makes me glad to live in a time and place where the useful minerals are cheap and plentiful. I hope that doesn’t change anytime soon.

The photo shows donkeys rather than mules, and the desert they inhabit is on the island of Bonaire rather than the American southwest. But these animals are descendants of donkeys used in the island’s salt industry, so they do share a tenuous connection with those working mules making the borax runs over 100 years ago.
If you enjoy reading about how household chores were accomplished in centuries past (remember this is reading about, not doing), you might be interested in my colonial history tale “Restitution.