Ratz, the Grand Canyon Mule—and the El Tovar Waiter

The mules of the Grand Canyon have long served as a popular form of transportation for people visiting this natural wonder. For many visitors, nothing can top a mule ride along canyon trails as the best way to see canyon sites. One of these hard-working animals now bears the name of a man who has spent 35 years of his life working at the Grand Canyon—Thomas Ratz, a waiter and sometimes bartender at the restaurant in the El Tovar hotel, a well-known lodging location along the canyon’s South Rim. Mr. Ratz—and Ratz the mule—received this rare honor to commemorate the waiter’s many years of enthusiastic service to canyon visitors.

Mr. Ratz, who has worked at the El Tovar since 1980, was thrilled—and surprised—by the naming of the mule. “I didn’t know what to say, because I had never heard of that. Apparently they’ve done it a few times. The poor thing is going to be called Rats,” he quipped.

Noting his admiration for these strong, sturdy animals, Ratz said, “The mules are wonderful. I go see the mules because they’re interesting animals, and the mules are very important. There would be no trails without them, and the mule rides are the iconic way of seeing the Grand Canyon.”

Ratz explained that his unusually lengthy employment at the El Tovar was the reason that the mule was named after him. “It’s a long time to be in the same place. It’s because I’ve been here a long time and I have an interest in the Canyon.” Besides working at the Grand Canyon, Ratz has long been a collector of canyon photographs, postcards, letters, and menus dating back to the early 1900s. He said, “I’ve been here a really long time, and I research and collect things about the Canyon. I have a lot of resource material from the past.”

Ratz has accumulated his collection partly by saving menus, postcards, and other items from the restaurant and partly by purchasing items on eBay. He notes that fascinating bits of knowledge can be gleaned from looking at old menus. “Breakfast, to me, is one of the more interesting meals because they would have things [in the early 1900s] you would never think you would have for breakfast.”

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The waiter left his original hometown of Grand Rapids, Michigan, because of the early-1980s recession that made jobs hard to come by in that area. After applying, and being accepted for, the El Tovar job in 1980, he moved to Arizona and quickly fell in love with the canyon region. Today, he leaves the area only for occasional visits to family and friends.

The job has been “a good fit” for Ratz over the years. “This place is really cool because you get everybody from everywhere. I don’t think it’s like too many other places, because there are so many different people—both the people who work here and the people who come to visit. It’s like Oz, so many different people showing up.”

The main change in the restaurant over the decades has been that it’s gotten busier, according to Ratz. “There used to be shoulder periods when it would get slow, and they’re not there anymore. Spring break has gotten really busy—March, April, and May. October is really busy too.” He continues to enjoy the work, saying, “It’s a very good job all year round, which most restaurant positions are not. They’re all very seasonal; this one is not.”

Ratz has no plans to leave the Grand Canyon and El Tovar anytime soon. “When you’re good at something, you keep doing it.” But he can think of one other place where he will eventually go some day. “If it doesn’t fill up, I’ll get a spot in the cemetery. There’s the long range plan.”