Tournament of Roses Pres. Brad Ratliff will ride with the Borax 20 Mule Team in the 2017 Rose Parade

by Laura Berthold Monteros

And we thought we were up on things….

Google Alerts sent a notice of an article from 23ABC News in Bakersfield, Calif. about the Twenty Mule Team outfit from US Borax being in the Tournament of Roses Parade on Jan. 2, 2017. What? It’s not listed with the equestrian units. We searched the media guide, and Foxit Reader did not find the team (not the first time it’s missed something). We emailed Tournament of Roses public relations, and to our chagrin, were informed that the 20 mules will be pulling Pres. Brad Ratliff and his family. And there it was, in the “Tournament Entries” section.

For those who remember the Borax TV commercials or the television series Death Valley Days, the team and wagons hold special significance. For those who don’t, here’s a little trivia. The TV series ran from 1952 to 1970 and was based on an earlier radio program. Scripts for the anthology series were adaptations of true stories of Death Valley in California, the lowest elevation in the United States. It was sponsored by Pacific Coast Borax Company with its brands 20 Mule Team Borax and Boraxo, and hosted at various stages by The Old Ranger Stanley Andrews, Ronald Reagan, Rosemary DeCamp, Robert Taylor, and Cliff Roberson.

The popularity and educational and publicity value of the series led to more tourism and eventually to the creation of Death Valley National Park. In fact, the National Parks Service itself was the result of advocacy by Stephen Mather, the company executive who created the 20 Mule Team brand. Mather became its first director in 1917. 23ABC quotes Preston Chiaro, president of Death Valley Conservancy, “Few things symbolize our collective past more than the pioneering spirit of Americans who ventured west in the 1800s toward the prospect of a better life. We are absolutely delighted that we’ve been selected to represent such an important part of California’s heritage and nostalgia.”

The DVC is working with a bipartisan group of elected officials and other partners to secure an invitation to the 2017 Presidential Inaugural Parade in Washington, DC. The two events will mark the centennial of the mule team’s appearance in the 1917 Rose Parade and the second inauguration of Pres. Woodrow Wilson in the same year. The conservancy has worked with mule-skinner Bobby Tanner of Bishop, Calif. and support from private donors to construct replicas of the original Twenty Mule Team freight wagons. Five sets of these giant wagons were originally built in the 1880s; all but one of these sets has been lost to history. The remaining set, located at the Harmony Borax Works in Death Valley National Park, has been used as a template to build the replicas.

Tanner has trained his matched set of mules to pull the wagons, recreating the art of managing large sets of animals. Bobby uses a single “jerk line,” a rope that runs to the left-hand lead mule, which is controlled by using only tugs on the jerk line and voice commands. The mule skinner is mounted on the left wheel mule. If you read up on what a mule-skinner is and the smarts a mule needs to be part of a team of 20, you will be impressed at his accomplishment. There’s a great article with illustrations on the Idaho Mountain Express website. Riding in the wagon will be Pres. Ratliff, his wife Susan, his father Dick Ratliff, the 1999 TOR president, and the Ratliff family.