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The Furnace Creek area in Death Valley was once a pivotal source of this precious mineral.
20 Mule Team Borax has a new look. The row of 10 pairs of mules pulling two wagons and a water tanker remains across the top of the box in miniature, but an image of a front-loading washer’s door, the glass providing a window onto a green meadow, azure sky, and cumulus clouds, dominates.
The bucolic scene promises clean air, water, and clothes and is a contrast from the desert where borax began. In purple, blue, and sage-green text, the message on the packaging references the cleanser’s past: “Nature’s original laundry and cleaning solution. An alternative purely from nature for over 115 years.”
Now part of The Dial Corporation, A Henkel Company, 20 Mule Team Borax was born in the Furnace Creek area of what became Death Valley National Park (the park’s eastern tip lies in Nevada). Before borax was found there in 1881, the U.S. imported the mineral compound from Asia. That changed in 1883 when William T. Coleman started Harmony Borax Works, employing 40 men working in the desert sun to produce three tons of borax daily. For six years, 1883-89, 20-mule teams pulled wagons from Harmony Borax Works for 165 miles—a 10-day trip—to the railroad near Mojave, California.
When I earned my learner’s permit, Helen, a timid driver who nevertheless loved to explore places, handed me the car keys during my summer visits as a teenager, and we took long trips on the emptier highways of a quarter century ago. One time, she had me drive us to Death Valley to see the former Harmony plant to help me understand how minerals are part of daily life and that chemistry is fundamental to home economics. Hydrated sodium borate was extracted from the ground we stood on. The process depends on rain: Borax (composed of sodium, boron, oxygen, and water) crystals form on the playas when boron, deposited by mountain runoff, concentrates through evaporation.
The outdoor museum is worth the trip. Surrounded by a low split-rail fence, the rusted machinery lies stranded in the sand like the bones of a beached whale. The faded red paint on the wagon wheels and water tanker is the color of dried blood. Next to the wheels people look very small. The buildings’ bricks match the earth, and the structures are open to the sky. Sagebrush grows where the road ran.
From the 1930s through the 1950s, Pacific Coast Borax Company sponsored the radio show “Death Valley Days”—later a television show hosted by Ronald Reagan. The show highlighted voices of the desert combed by New Yorker Ruth Cornwall Woodman, a dry-lands neophyte when she started writing the series, who, through her reporting, became an expert on the region. On December 31, 1974, Harmony Borax Works was listed on the National Register of Historic Places.
To stay current with trends from her 1950s Henderson tract home, my Nevadan grandmother, Helen Stephensen McBain, rested between chores with saltines and cream cheese and magazines such as Sunset, Woman’s Day, and Better Homes and Gardens.
I wish she were alive to see borax touted in the August issue of Martha Stewart’s Whole Living magazine as a “green” way to brighten laundry. A box of borax sat on Helen’s hamper and was part of the cargo we toted weekly to the Laundromat in the back of her Ford. The cleanser was, she said, essential to boost detergent in hard water.
The 2010 Martha Stewart laundry tip also advises hanging clothes in the sun. As a kid, I complained about hauling bags of damp clothes in green plastic bags (my grandmother reused them) from the Laundromat to her backyard clothesline while I watched other people pile towels, chambray shirts, Hanes, and blue jeans from the square-wheeled Laundromat carts into the industrial clothes dryers.
The pastoral scene of the new Borax would be foreign to Helen’s desert-dwelling personality, but she’d get a kick out of the box’s hip redesign, and knowing she was right about its uses. Helen managed to escape the 21st century without ever browsing the Web, but if she could, she’d find her reliable magazines like Reader’s Digest listing online multiple uses for borax such as unclogging drains, cleaning toilets, and deterring ants.
Helen would ask me to drive her across the state line to California’s largest open-pit mine owned by Rio Tinto Borax, about 200 miles from Death Valley’s Furnace Creek. Rio Tinto supplies 43 percent of the world’s refined borate. The Kern County town of Boron, population 2,400, houses the 20 Mule Team Museum and modern-day miners with their own stories to tell.