A Salt Story: West Virginia Siblings Mine the Past to Build a Future (Gravy Ep. 22)

While West Virginia may be known for resources like coal, the country once turned to this mountain state for a culinary staple: salt. Salt production started in this part of the Appalachian mountains in the late 1700s. It was an industry built on the backs of slaves, and one that proved destructive to the region’s environment. Now, a seventh generation salt-making family is reviving the business. In this episode of Gravy, Caleb Johnson and Irina Zhorov bring us the story of one family’s attempt to reconcile its salt-making past with a more environmentally and socially responsible future.

Lewis Payne in the old Dickinson Salt Works office.
Lewis Payne in the old Dickinson Salt Works office.

You can find J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works here.

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A basic history of the salt-making industry in West Virginia is here. You can read a chapter on slavery and the Kanawha salt industry in the collection “Appalachians and Race: The Mountain South from Slavery to Segregation,” here.

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Among those who worked in the salt furnaces were the family of Booker T. Washington, who lived in Malden, West Virginia as a boy. You can read more about that here.

Lewis Payne in the sunhouse, with the beds of brine to be evaporated into salt.
Lewis Payne in the sunhouse, with the beds of brine to be evaporated into salt.
Nancy Bruns.
Nancy Bruns.
Salt crystals in the JQ Dickinson Salt Works sunhouse.
Salt crystals in the JQ Dickinson Salt Works sunhouse.