Before Coal, There Was Salt

Inaugural Salt Fest to Showcase History of Area’s Salt-making Industry

Charleston, W.Va. – Historically, West Virginia is an extractive state. Today’s coal, natural gas and chemical industries were preceded by another extractive commodity: salt.

The Kanawha Valley sits upon an ancient ocean, making it a salt-rich area. In the early 1800s, settlers moved to the area and built multiple saltworks to harvest this plentiful natural resource.

By 1810, salt production was booming, producing 30 million pounds per year. The Kanawha Valley was the number one producer of salt in the United States in 1810, and salt from the area was dubbed some of the best salt in the world at both the World’s Fairs in London in 1851 and in Paris in 1867.

Early salt production was made possible with both paid and slave labor. As fortunes were made, saltworks owners settled their families in Charleston, and their mansions still line the streets of the Capital City.

Several factors, including the Civil War, flooding, and loss of slave labor led to a quick demise of West Virginia’s commercial salt production. Only J.Q. Dickinson remained in business after 1890, and, in 1945 the company discontinued operations. The Dickinson family retained the saltworks property, and, in 2013, Dickinson descendants Nancy Bruns and her brother Lewis Payne began producing gourmet salt, which can be found in 500 restaurants and retailers throughout the US and abroad. In July 2017, the Kanawha County Commission designated the Malden area a special interest district named “Kanawha Salines Historic Salt District.”

To honor the history of the salt industry and those who built and labored at the Kanawha Valley’s original saltworks, the inaugural BB&T Malden Salt Fest will take place Oct. 6-8, 2017.  J. Q. Dickinson Salt-Works, in cooperation with BB&T, and local, state, county, and city officials, will host the event. Title sponsor BB&T has direct ties to the salt industry. Kanawha Valley Bank, the forerunner of the modern-day BB&T, was founded to rebuild the salt industry after the Civil War. William Dickinson, Jr, son of the founder of Dickinson Salt-Works, and several of his colleagues pooled assets and started the bank in 1867.

Friday’s activities include research and genealogy assistance at the State Archives in Charleston and an invitation-only reception for descendants of salt-industry owners, paid workers, and slaves. Saturday activities include an old-fashioned parade, history lectures, saltworks tours, artifact displays, and local music. A special children’s area will be set up and train rides for the kids will be available. A morning service Sunday at the African Zion Church will include gospel music and will be followed by tours of a model of Booker T. Washington’s cabin. Charleston’s Springhill Cemetery and Park, which is on the National Register of Historic Places, will be open for self-guided tours from morning to dusk. Salt-industry-family graves will be designated.

All events are free and open to the public except for Friday night’s reunion reception. A list of activities for the three-day event can be found here:

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