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    Salt of the Earth | Winter 2015 Out Here Magazine

    By Carol Davis

    Photography by Mark Mosrie

    The seeds of the Dickinson family’s crop were planted eons ago and deposited so deep within the Appalachian Mountains that the family must dig 350 feet down to harvest it.

    This West Virginia farm produces salt from brine cultivated from an ancient ocean deep below the mountain range. The harvest was once so plentiful that this area was once known as “the salt-making capital of the east.”

    William Dickinson, one of the Kanawha Valley’s salt-making pioneers, realized its potential, bought “salt properties” along the Kanawha River near present-day Charleston, W.Va., and started his salt business in 1817. J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, named for his grandson, operated for 128 years before shutting its doors.

    Today, seven generations later, Dickinson’s descendants, sister and brother Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne, have revived and reinvented the family salt business in the very place where it all began.

    New Harvest

     

    Take a walk around the scenic farm in Malden, W.Va., that’s remained in the family for 200 years and you’ll see a crumbling stone silo that once stored tons of salt and old wells that once pumped brine from deep below.

     

    The salt comes from an ancient sea called the Iapetus Ocean that predated the Atlantic. Remnants of the Iapetus Ocean remain trapped below the Appalachians.

     

    The ocean is not a large, open pocket of water, like you might imagine an underground lake to be, explains Lewis. Rather, the salty brine from the Iapetus Ocean is distributed within and around underground rock formations.

     

    These formations serve to filter the water, which gives the brine, and the salt it produces, such a consistent, quality taste, Lewis says. 

    “That’s why it’s so special,” he adds. 

    Their subterranean brine’s mineral content is different than ocean salt and, as such, tastes different, Nancy says.

    “Our source is protected because it’s so deep underground,” she says. “There are no traces of heavy metals like arsenic, lead, or mercury.”

     

    Harvesting salt from an underground water source occurs in only one other place in the world — in Maras, Peru, where salty water feeds from a spring into salt evaporation ponds, which have been used since Inca times.

     

    At J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, Nancy and Lewis use a process they developed after several months of testing and learning some chemistry.

     

    They built a demo mini-hoop house containing small plastic beds to test how deep each bed should be for the best evaporation.

     

    “It took us three or four months to figure out the process, and when we tasted it — wow!” she recalls. “It was a great feeling.”

    Brine is pumped once a week from a new well they dug that reaches down about 350 feet and fed into a 2,500-gallon holding tank where it sits for four or five days, allowing the iron to settle. The iron-free salt water is then pumped into shallow beds located inside several greenhouses, or sunhouses.

     

    The power of the sun creates high temperatures in the sunhouses, which slowly evaporates the brine, leaving behind square-shaped salt crystals that get harvested by hand.

     

    Like above-ground farmers, they rely on good weather to develop their crop. Sunny days create faster drying; stormy or cloudy days slow the process.

     

    When the harvest is ready, staff members use a rake and large scoop — both made of birch by a local craftsman so they’re non-reactive to the high-mineral liquid — to gather the salt crystals and put them through several processes for drying.

     

    Salt crystals are then cleaned, sifted, sorted, and ground before being packaged.

    ‘Salt Rush’

     

    Long before William Dickinson and other salt makers arrived, buffalo and deer first discovered a salt spring along the Kanawha River, where they were drawn to lick essential mineral nutrients from the salt deposits. Native Americans would later follow the animal trails to the source of salt.

     

    Early settler Elisha Brooks started the Kanawha Valley’s first commercial salt works in 1797, producing up to 150 bushels a day from a spring to sell to settlers for curing butter and meats, according to the West Virginia Geological and Economic Survey.

     

    Later salt speculators drilled to tap into a flow of strong brine, which set off a “salt rush” and by 1815, salt makers, including William Dickinson, eventually would operate 100 wells and 52 salt furnaces for evaporating the brine.

     

    The salt makers banded together to form the Kanawha Salt Company, a trust — the first in the United States — to regulate the price and quality of salt and deter foreign competition. The cooperative enabled the salt industry to grow until its peak in 1846 when 3¼ million bushels were produced, making the Kanawha Valley one of the largest salt-manufacturing centers in the United States.

     

    Indeed, salt initiated West Virginia’s coal industry. Timber first was used to heat the brine, but when that became scarce, salt makers turned to the area’s rich coal deposits to keep the furnaces running.

    But economic changes and other events took their toll on this salt source. Chicago replaced Cincinnati as the center of the meat-packing industry, which had its own salt sources, making Kanawha salt in less demand.

     

    The twin tragedies of the Civil War and a devastating valley flood in 1861 essentially wiped out most producers, sealing the fate of nearly all of the salt furnaces.

     

    The Dickinson furnace at Malden would be one of the few to rebuild; by 1898, it was the valley’s only salt furnace. It would last way into the next century by adapting to the changing market, supplying salt, for example, for winter road maintenance and to chemical companies.

     

    J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works stopped making salt in 1945.

     

    A sense of history and family would cause it to re-emerge in 2013.

    Back On The Farm

     

    Nancy didn’t realize her family’s deep roots in the Kanawha Valley’s salt industry until her husband researched and wrote his master’s thesis on the valley’s industrialization.

     

    That newfound knowledge, combined with the opening of a salt-producing company in the Pacific northwest and the farm-to-table movement, got Nancy, who lived in North Carolina at the time, to thinking.

     

    “It was one of those ‘a-ha’ moments,” she says. “We had the history, the land, and the brine. I called Lewis and said, ‘I’ve got this idea,’ so now here we are.”

     

    She returned home, bringing her chef training and 20 years of food industry experience with her to partner with Lewis, an attorney. Her insight into what chefs and foodies want proved crucial from the beginning; she and Lewis sold out of their first batch of salt within three weeks, requiring them to expaned immediately.

     

    Last year, they produced 6,000 pounds of salt; this year, they were hoping to reach 8,000, depending on the weather.

     

    Growth will be slow and steady, but J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works will always remain a small business, Nancy says.

     

    “I don’t foresee that we want to be a big industry,” she says. “We don’t want to build it up and sell it.”

     

    “We’re in it,” she says, “for the long run.”