100 years ago, Borax 20-Mule Team visited Lititz

By on June 5, 2019

“Nothing like it ever seen in Lititz” was just one of the many headlines published in the May 29, 1919 edition of the Lititz Record Express.

This announcement was in anticipation of a special event that was days away from happening in town.

Direct from Death Valley, California, the Borax 20-Mule Team would make their way through Lititz on June 4 of that year, all to the cheers and awe of the massive crowds that would turn out for the spectacle. At least one report indicated that this unique traveling billboard of sorts had been crossing the continent for over two and a half years straight, and stopping through small towns along the way.

Once they arrived in town driver “Borax Bill” could be seen at the lead holding the reins. He guided a colorful cast of characters including the likes of “Tarantula Pete” and “Alkali Joe” across the United States on what can only be described as a galloping, rough and tumble advertisement on wheels. Accompanying them were also five laborers, who assisted in caring for (and cleaning up after) the animals along the way.

After stopping along Main Street, the team made its way along West Lincoln Avenue in Lititz.

See the parade! See Borax Bill turn the corner! See the Alkali dust fly! were just some of the many attention grabbers that were advertised prior to the visit.

And indeed it was a special occasion–factories all across town closed, and many farmers decided to call it an early day as not to miss the show.

The streets were crowded with onlookers of all ages as the dust kicked up while the team made their way across town both in style and authority.

Behind the animals were two wagons (desert schooners) which were eight feet high, four feet wide, and 16 feet in length. Each weighed four tons. Behind that was a water wagon. When everything was lined up, the entire team stretched some 176 feet. At the head of the line was “Trilby,” an exceptionally smart mule who was able to negotiate turns and corners with ease. The team could be heard coming from quite a distance, and was welcomed to the downtown to much cheers and applause.

“Borax Bill” can be seen leading the team as they traveled along East Main Street in front of the Lititz Springs Park. Note the trolley behind the caravan.

This photo was most likely taken just west of town, as the Borax 20 Mule Team readied to make their exit out of Lititz.

The wagons (which were both filled with samples), made two stops while in town: each destination just happened to be a local grocer who no doubt stocked Borax on their shelves. With bells attached to their reins, the mules roared up Main Street, and at 3:30 p.m, they made their first stop at Pfautz’s Department Store at 8 E. Main Street. While there, Tarantula Pete gave a 10-minute lecture. Next, the team proceeded to Leaman and Leed grocery store, which was located 49. N. Broad Street. There, another speech was made while even more samples were tossed out in every direction.

That evening, the entire caravan spent the night on the grounds of the Eby Shoe Factory, which at the time was located a block off North Broad Street. While in Lancaster County, after leaving Lititz, the team would make several other stops to neighboring towns: on June 2, they visited Lancaster city; and on June 3, they traveled to New Holland.

It all must have been quite a spectacle to see back then, years before cellphones, television, Netflix, and video games occupied our time.

These days, there’s a Borax Bill Park in California (whose address, naturally, is 20 Mule Team Parkway).

It was certainly a different era in 1919 when the Borax 20-Mule Team made its way from city to city across the nation.And for one day one hundred years ago, Lititz was part of that excitement.

Cory Van Brookhoven is a staff writer for the Lititz Record Express. He welcomes your comments at cvanbrookhoven@lnpnews.com or 717-721-4423. 

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