Salt of the earth: Mineral’s wells run deep in Kanawha Valley

The only salt-makers left in the Kanawha Valley today are on a mission to preserve the area’s well-seasoned heritage.

Brother and sister duo Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne revived their family’s namesake operation in 2013, nearly 70 years after it ceased operation as the last functioning salt mine in the Kanawha Valley.

Now known as J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, the business is a reminder of a once-booming industry that sparked the growth of Charleston and innovation that would revolutionize drilling in the coal, oil and gas industries.

The contemporary version of the Dickinson family salt business will be showcased at the BB&T Inaugural Malden Salt Fest, coming up Oct. 6 to 8, which will celebrate the revival of a storied family operation and showcase the history of an industry that powered the original growth of Charleston and the Kanawha Valley.

“To be honest, when we decided to revive the salt business, we didn’t have a very good grasp on what the history of the family or the industry was,” Payne said. “I didn’t know how prolific the industry was.”

These days, Bruns and Payne sell a finishing salt that is pumped from the remnants of an ancient sea below the Appalachian Mountains. The brine is evaporated in sun houses and harvested by hand.

The result is a gourmet sea salt used in various local restaurants, sold widely in other cities and used in acclaimed restaurants like The French Laundry in Napa Valley.

The area’s deeply salty history will also be memorialized through the development of a museum dedicated to the region’s salt industry. The museum is the latest step in a series of efforts to recognize a history that began with the discovery of salt licks by American Indians passing through the region in the area that would later come to be called Malden.

Looking back on the history of their family business, Payne says they learn a little more about their heritage each day.

In July, the Kanawha County Commission designated Malden a special interest area named the Kanawha Salines Historic Salt District. Payne has also formed a nonprofit, the Kanawha Salines Foundation, and has applied for its first grant to help restore a building in Malden that was the original Dickinson Salt-Works “Salt Office,” where the business was run on the family farm.

The baby-blue wooden building still stands today. Though deserted, it features relics of the industry: log books and pictures and even little jars of each variety of salt drawn from deep underground.

The museum will also feature key tools created and used in the Malden salt industry. Payne hopes the relics will help “protect the heritage of the salt industry in the Kanawha Valley.”

It was, after all, the salt business that led to the settlement that eventually became Charleston — the future capital of West Virginia.

The valley’s salt-business heritage started with the Dickinson family. But the salt that powered the industry to come was long known to American Indians, and the source of the salt has ancient roots.

More than 300 feet below the Appalachian Mountains flows the Iapetus Sea, the source of the salt deposits.

The area that would become the epicenter of the salt industry in the valley was known as the “Buffalo Salt Lick” to American Indians, who flocked to the region for “untold generations” to acquire the commodity, according to “The Allegheny Frontier: West Virginia Beginnings, 1730-1830,” by Otis K. Rice.

The salt lick was made famous by Mary Draper Ingles when she was captured by Shawnee Indians in 1755. En route to Ohio, she camped with the Shawnees at the salt lick, where they taught her how to produce the crystals.

From a shallow well near what came to be known as Malden, the first commercial salt producer, Elisha Brooks, scooped the brine and would boil it to evaporate the water, leaving behind bushels of white savory crystals. His method was labor-intensive.

“This brine had a low concentration of salt, so it took a lot of water to make a large quantity,” said Billy Joe Peyton, professor of history at West Virginia State University and author of “Historic Charleston: The First 225 Years.”

Due to scarce production of the commodity, the U.S. required an abundance of imports from England.

“Salt was used to pack pork, and a major packing center was in Cincinnati,” historian John E. Stealey III said. “You’re talking about millions of bushels of salt being consumed in that. Pork furnished basic diet in the West because you could preserve it; beef wasn’t as easy to preserve.”

Many cities downriver had pork packaging centers, he said. The majority of salt was used to package pork, but it was also used to feed animals, process dairy and bleach and cure hay.

At the outset of the 18th century, the Ruffner brothers, Daniel and Joseph, sought ways to extract more copious amounts of the salt to meet a growing demand. They dug deeper in the marshy land, and this yielded stronger brine.

Eventually, they hit rock and chose to drill. They drove through 40 feet of rock and, in 1808, struck a brine two and a half times as strong as the brine in the shallower wells, according to Rice. For every 200 gallons of brine, the brothers were able to produce a bushel of salt.

Their younger brother, Tobias Ruffner, began to bore even deeper. At a depth of 410 feet, he tapped a brine so rich that 45 gallons yielded a bushel of salt.

Their success inspired landowners on both sides of the river to sink wells and build furnaces to evaporate the water more quickly. By 1810, the area was producing 30 million pounds of salt a year and became the No. 1 producer of the commodity in the U.S.

In 1816, 52 furnaces were in operation and more were in the process of being built. The valley produced up to 3,000 bushels of salt each day and became known as the “Kanawha Salines.” A “saline” is an area saturated with salt.

The process to produce the salt was relatively simple, according to Stealey. Steam engines pumped the brine to an elevated tank. A giant pan heated by steam evaporated the water from the brine, leaving behind the crystallized salt. But as the industry flourished, salt-makers made vast improvements to the technology.

When wood became scarce, they adapted coal as furnace fuel. Wooden tubing was replaced by more reliable materials like tin, copper and iron. A casing made of calfskin or buckskin enabled drillers to seal joints in the tubing, preventing the weak brine at shallower depth from infiltrating the stronger brine obtained below.

In 1831, a driller by the name of William “Uncle Billy” Morris refined the technology further by inventing a tool known as a “slip,” which dislodged the drill bit from rock and made it possible to drill to a depth that would reach even stronger brine.

From there, salt production in the valley boomed — even more than it already had.

Yield grew as the onset of the War of 1812 resulted in a U.S. embargo of British imported salt.

“This, in turn, created increased demand until the Kanawha Valley led the nation in salt production by the 1840s,” Peyton said. “Kanawha salt made fortunes for many salt-makers, like the Dickinsons, and created the first monied class in this area.”

Salt industry magnates settled farther west in Charleston to escape the stench of the salt-making process.

Some of the “salt families” are still influential in the valley today, Peyton said. Their mansions still line the streets of the Capitol city.

Kanawha Valley salt was dubbed some of the best in the world at both World’s Fairs in London (1851) and Paris (1867).

However, it wasn’t long before business took a turn. The emergence of new salt fields in the Midwest and the Civil War brought tough times for the industry in the Kanawha Valley.

During the Civil War, owners burned some of the salt facilities to ensure they would not fall into the hands of the Confederates as battles raged in and out of the area.

In 1867, William Dickinson Jr., son of the founder of the Dickinson Salt-Works, and several colleagues pooled assets and started the Kanawha Valley Bank, the modern-day BB&T. It was the first state bank in the young West Virginia, and was founded to rebuild the salt industry.

However, the valley’s salt production never truly recovered.

Flooding and the loss of slave labor prevented the industry’s rebound, and producers had a tough time competing with new salt fields along major waterways.

“Railroads came and settlement moved west,” Stealey said. “What this meant was the next major salt field was in Michigan. So the main packing center in the West became Chicago, and that displaced Cincinnati.”

Salt fields in Mason County and Meigs County, Ohio, also had an advantage over the Kanawha Valley.

“They had a little transportation advantage,” Stealey said. “They didn’t have to go down the Kanawha River to get to the Ohio River to get to Cincinnati.”

Dickinson Salt-Works would become the longest and only company to remain in business. The company discontinued operations in 1945.

It would be nearly 70 years before salt production at any capacity would return to the Kanawha Valley, but in a much different form. In 2013, Dickinson descendants Bruns and Payne would be inspired to revive the salt-works, but in a much different form than what came before.

The BB&T Inaugural Malden Salt Fest will be a celebration of the revival of a storied family business and a celebration of the industry that powered so much of the original growth of Charleston and the Kanawha Valley.

In Part Two of this series, in the Sept. 24 Life section, the Gazette-Mail will describe a festival that pays homage to the complicated and rich history of a seasoning with deep roots in West Virginia..

In Part Two of this series in the Sept. 24 Life section, the Gazette-Mail will describe a festival that pays homage to the complicated and rich history of a seasoning with deep roots in West Virginia.

Reach Jennifer Gardner at jennifer.gardner@wvgazettemail.com, 304-348-5102 or follow @jenncgardner on Twitter.

Funerals for Tuesday, October 15, 2019

Dotson, Jeffery - 7 p.m., Good Shepherd Mortuary, South Charleston.

Kees, Nancy - 11 a.m., Salem Road Freewill Baptist Church, Oak Hill.

Payne, Arless - 5 p.m., Taylor-Vandale Funeral Home, Spencer.

Taylor, Connie - 11 a.m., Memory Gardens, Low Gap.

Taylor, Joseph - 11 a.m., Gauley Bridge Baptist Church.

Williams, Nellie - 1 p.m., Pineview Cemetery, Orgas.

Yates, Ruth - 11:30 a.m., Sunset Memorial Park Mausoleum, South Charleston.