Saturday, February 7, 2015

Death Valley in a '51 Powerglide - part 7 - Old Harmony Borax Works

Death Valley in a '51 Powerglide - part 7 - Old Harmony Borax Works


The ashtray on a '51 Chevrolet is integrated into the design of the flat chrome vertical bars that spanned its dashboard so as to be invisible when closed, but dad's ashtray was always open for business. At the time, emptying the contents, at a stoplight for instance, was not considered to be littering according to dad. Though he was one of very few people who would not throw trash out the window, ashes and cigarette butts did not count. The main issue with the Bel Air's ashtray was that while being close to dad and the steering wheel and his Lucky Strikes, it was a very long reach for my mom's Chesterfields coming from the far side of the sofa sized bench seat. Her solution was to let the ash grow to epic length proportions before leaning over with the precision of a Chinese acrobat to have the ash fall off into the pint sized container. Watching this balancing act was so mesmerizing that I wasn't looking at the road as we backtracked the 40 mile stretch from Scotty's Castle to the highway and it caught me by surprise when in a softened and somewhat melancholy voice she said: "snake", I hadn't seen it coming. Nor had dad, who immediately swerved to the other side of the road to again run over our unfortunate viper from the trip to Scotty's Castle a second time. That triggered a near word for word replay of the conversation covered in the previous dispatch on the inbound trip and lasted till we intersected the highway.   


A few more miles down the road I began to wonder out loud as to how hot it might get in this place so famous for scorching summers, to which mom opened the mimeographed sheet that T.R. Goodwin had handed her back at Scotty's Castle and from the blurry blue ink she quoted: 

"The maximum temperature recorded in Death Valley was 134°F. on July 10, 1913, which constituted the world's record until September 13, 1922 when 135°F. was reported at Azizia, Tripoli.

The minimum for Death Valley occurred January 8, 1913 with 15°F.

Average annual precipitation i 2.41 inches. Average humidity 4. With occasional absolute zero.

Research has determined that air temperature at five feet above ground does not exceed 120—F. for more than four hours.

Temperature distribution form the sheltered thermometers (at 5 feet) indicating 125°F. to the ground surface follows.

a. Air at 5 feet .............. 125 degrees F.
b. Air at 1 foot .............. 150 degrees F.
c. Air at 1 inch .............. 165 degrees F.
d. Surface of ground ...... 180 degrees F.

By computation, the air temperature on the surface of ground can ge determined when the air temperature at 5 feet was 134°F. It would be hot enough on the ground surface to boil water or fry eggs and too hot for visitors to walk bare-footed. —T.R. Goodwin"

"Yikes" I said.


Just before powergliding our way into Furnace Creek (originally called 'Greenland' by the way) and about a mile and a half north of town, we came up to the Old Harmony Borax landmark dad was looking for. Mom and I thanked the stars there were only a few more landmarks to go. We later learned the 20-mule teams written about on the plaque were actually 2 teams of 10 mules that hauled 10 tons of borax in 10 days, 165 miles to Mohave  Why 20 mules? Well, Mr. Perry and Ed Stiles (his main muleskinner) tried teams of 8 and 10 and it wasn't enough.


Sometime during their 5 year run between 1893 and 1898 in a effort to replace the mules, a steam traction engine named “Dinah” was brought in but proved less reliable, and was eventually towed back to town by the mules it tried to replace.
'Dinah won't ya blow' indeed. We'll get into this 20 Mule Team outfit in more depth in a later dispatch.


NO. 773:  Old Harmony Borax Works

In 1881 Aaron Winters discovered borax on the marsh near this point. He later sold his holdings to W. T. Coleman of San Francisco, who built the Harmony Borax Works in 1882 and commissioned his superintendent, J. W. S. Perry, to design wagons and locate a suitable route to Mojave. The work of gathering the ore (called 'cottonball') was done by Chinese workmen. From this point, 20-mule teams transported the processed borax 165 miles to the railroad until 1889

Location: State Hwy 190 (P.M. 109.1), 1.4 mi N of Furnace Creek, Death Valley National Monument


From the '20 Mule Team' landmark we rolled into the ranch to find Harry Oliver already there....affirming it was his Ford V8 woody that passed us on the way from Scotty's Castle. Set designer that he was, he had a plan to make a circled wagons backdrop for the campfire show and dad threw in with him to help, along with Stan Jones' friends Julio and Bufungo, who had shown up from Trona. Several of the French tourists from Stovepipe Wells pitched in as well. Dave and Louise Frey were on the way with another wagon and extra props piled high on the flatbed of his '47 Studebaker truck, not because Dave somehow knew what Harry was up to, he simply never traveled light, or without adequate 'walkin' around money'. The 'set' came together quickly and looked so good it could have been in the John Sturges movie that started Stan's career in show business at that very spot. .

Not being inclined to physical work myself, I'd slipped over to where Stan Jones' band 'The Plainsmen' had been going over a few of his songs. Right off, I recognized steel guitarist Joaquin Murphy from seeing him many times with Spade Cooley at the Santa Monica Pier Ballroom, the house bands on 'Rocket to Stardom' at KTLA and 'Town Hall party at the Compton town hall to which mom and I would ride the bus to play my red accordion. The other band members were looking familiar as well. The bandleader was Andy Parker, along with Clem Smith, Charlie Morgan (who was going on about his sister Jaye P. Morgan's recent recording success), and George Bamby. Andy said I'd likely seen them in the Saturday matinees playing with Eddie Dean. I hadn't but I shyly mentioned that I thought my godmother, Shirley Patterson had done some acting with Eddie Dean. "Some?" Andy said. It turned out she'd starred in three westerns with him, they knew her well, and when he said the dates the movies were released, one of them it turned out. 'Driftin River' was released the very day I was born.  


To borrow a quote from dad I went: 'Hmmm". I'd realized now the reason mom was hauling me around to play those talent shows was to live a bit vicariously the stage door side of things she perceived existed for her best teenage friend turned actress. "So you play the accordion?" "Show us what you've got" George Bamby says and I borrowed his smallish Italian job and knocked off 'Lady of Spain' complete with the 'doodly-doodly' trick bit they taught me at Morey's Music back in Long Beach. They jumped in and accompanied me with an instant arrangement that threw me off some but I hung on. They said I just had to play it that night for everyone, no excuses. And here I'd simply wandered by to get out of work, but I knew being a kid act shill that night would make mom happy.

Speaking of mom, she'd wandered off to the pool and was back reading 'Cat on a Hot Tin Roof' when I had realized the time and running back to the Bel Air, the dashboard clock showed a bit past 4, and grabbing the soda from the cooler I rushed Dr. Pepper #3 to her poolside in the nick of time. And time it was to get ready for the show.


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