1846 - 1931
The West was pioneered by remarkable men, one of whom was Francis Marion "Borax" Smith. A Wisconsin farm boy, he became one of the great entrepreneurs of California and Nevada. By 1890 he dominated the borax industry and his trademark, the 20-Mule Team, was known across America. Borax Smith's life shows how a person with a lively imagination, a willingness to take risks on a large scale, and a strong will to succeed and can accomplish great things.
Mules in Oakland?
In 1872 Borax Smith... discovered western Nevada's richest borax deposit at Teels Marsh. But to get it to market, he had to transport the mineral 165 miles across inhospitable desert to the nearest railroad. A decade later, when borax mining began in Death Valley, Smith faced a similar problem. Salt flats, a mountain range, and 150 miles of desert separated his mine from the railroad.
Mules proved to be the answer. Hitched in pairs to form a team of 20, these strong, hardy beasts successfully pulled 30-ton loads in two large wagons, plus a 500 gallon water wagon. During the 5 years of Death Valley hauling, in which 20 million tons of borax concentrate was delivered to market, not a single mule was lost, nor did any of the specially built wagons break down.
Although the 20-Mule Teams were twice recalled to service for brief periods at new borax mines, after leaving Death Valley for the last time, their most important role was as an advertising image. Teams appeared at World Fairs, and in parades, movies and TV shows. Beside being one of our best known trademarks and part of American culture, the 20-Mule Team symbolizes the pioneer spirit that created the West we live and work in today.
With his fortune established, Smith turned his energies - and fortune - to the development of Oakland, his adopted city. He envisioned a modern, well-planned community with a world class seaport, and he helped make it a reality. He bought, consolidated, and reorganized the fragmented street railway lines in Oakland and Alameda County and created the Key Route System of streetcars, interurban trains, and transbay ferries. He also built the Claremont and Oakland Hotels, the Syndicate Building at 1440 Broadway, and developed housing tracts in North Oakland and Montclair, along with a water company to serve his properties and the rest of the community.
His home, Arbor Villa, south of Park Boulevard near today's Oakland High School, was an estate of 50 acres, Borax Smith was a warm and generous person, who opened his home for charitable fund-raising parties. His name was often the first on lists pledging funds for civic improvements and charitable causes. In 1902, he and his wife, Mary, donated 34 acres across Park Boulevard for homes to care for orphaned girls. By 1913, nine homes housing 79 young women, and a large social hall had been completed entirely with funds provided by the Smiths. The Smith's interest in children promoted the donation of this land to the City of Oakland in 1912 specifying it be used as a public playground.