They've graced show arenas, made a number of Pasadena Rose Parade appearances and long held a special place in the hearts of Bishop Mule Days spectators. Now the 20-Mule Team will serve as the 2011 Bishop Mule Days Grand Marshal.
Twenty-mule teams originated in the late 1800s, born out of a need to ferry borax, a component of glass production and many detergents, out of the Death Valley region between 1883 and 1889. The teams hauled more than 20 million pounds of borax out of Death Valley in the six years of operation. The teams were relieved of their task by the growth of railroads and new mineral deposit discoveries.
Yet, the teams were never forgotten by the public, thanks in part to the trademark team symbol that appeared on products produced by the company that would become U.S. Borax, Inc. The teams, although retired from their Death Valley trips, continued to make promotional and ceremonial appearances on behalf of U.S. Borax.
Led by Bishop's own Bobby Tanner, the 20-Mule Team's unique hitch requires many hours of preparation for an appearance such as Bishop Mule Days. This year Tanner also secured use of the famed Borax wagons, adding a distinct historical value to the team’s Bishop performances.
In the months preceding Mule Days, Tanner and his crew will tackle the dynamics of finding just the right weight-to-braking ratio, deal with the complexities of making tight turns with the roughly 170-foot long team and wagons, and spend hours fine-tuning the critical relationship between teamster and team.
What would surely be a daunting task for even the most experienced mule man is a way of life for Tanner. He drove his first 20-mule team in 1981, unknowingly launching himself into a 30-year journey of re-creating one of the West’s most beloved icons. It’s a journey that’s taken him across the country and given him the opportunity to share a piece of Americana with thousands of people.
Tanner’s father, Bob Sr., was among those who founded the Bishop Mule Days Celebration in 1969. As a result, Bobby Tanner has participated in nearly all 42 Bishop Mule Days celebrations, often winning awards for individual and packing events. He served as president of the event’s Executive Committee in 1990.
Today, Tanner owns and operates Rock Creek Lodge, a collection of cabins, a store and restaurant nestled in the trees close to Rock Creek, a favorite Eastern Sierra getaway.
The 20-Mule Team will make three appearances during Bishop Mule Days – in the Saturday morning parade, in the Saturday afternoon show and the Sunday evening show.
Bishop Mule Days will be held May 24th-29th at the Tri-County Fairgrounds in Bishop. Tickets for the event are on sale now. For more information, call the Mule Days office at (760) 872-4263 or click here to purchase show tickets.
The 20-Mule Team’s performances are sponsored by Paiute Palace Casino.
(Photo courtesy Dave McCoy Photography)
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