By David Sibray
Every day thousands of motorists speed past the old Dickinson mansion near Charleston, unaware of its form hidden among trees along the Kanawha River. Commissioned in 1850 by industrialist William Dickinson, the stately, colonnaded home has been obscured over time, as has the history of the family and the salt industry in which it played a prominent role.
Long before West Virginia was known for its oil, gas, coal, timber or chemicals, settlers were harvesting salt from seeps along a 10-mile stretch of bottomland known as the Kanawha Salines. Before their arrival, indigenous people from across the eastern continent had known of the salines as the Great Buffalo Lick and had for centuries processed salt in kettles there. Frontier heroine Mary Draper Ingles may have labored at the salines during her imprisonment by the Shawnee in 1755, and, according to some sources, her tales after her return inspired others to venture there.
Through the late 1700s pioneer farmers and merchants in and around the salines harvested salt for local use, though large-scale salt-making didn’t commence until 1808 when brothers David and Joseph Ruffner erected a large furnace and began shipping salt westward on log rafts to the Ohio. Drilling to a depth of 410 feet, another Ruffner brother the next year tapped extremely salty brine, setting off a frenzy of drilling that lured investors from throughout Virginia.
The activity quickly attracted the attention of William Dickinson, who arrived from Bedford County in 1813. He and his brother-and-law and business partner Joel Shrewsbury drilled hundreds of brine wells and acquired the vast amounts of land along with the coal and timber interests necessary to fuel immense evaporators. They profited from their designs, and soon enough Dickinson and Shrewsbury, along with John Dickinson Lewis and Lewis Ruffner, were declared the “Salt Kings of Kanawha.” In 1851, “The Great Kanawha Salt” was awarded “The Best Salt in The World” at the World’s Fair in London.
According to author Gerald S. Ratliff, the Dickinson-Shrewsbury operation was immense and was consistently the largest user of slave labor in the Kanawha Valley, employing slaves at the works and in mines that supplied fuel for saltmaking. The Dickinson salt furnace, established by Dickinson and Shrewsbury in 1832, operated for more than 100 years and was the area’s last remaining salt operation, outlasting others by many years.
Far removed from the idyllic scene one finds at the salines today -- historic homes joined by woodlots and gardens and open meadows -- John Edmund Stealey III described an industrial antebellum landscape in an article on the Kanawha Salines published in the West Virginia Encyclopedia:
“Dozens of salt furnaces and salt-well rigs crowded the riverbank, and tramways brought coal from mines in the nearby hills. Up to 1,500 slaves, several hundred white laborers, and a few dozen owners, overseers, and managers manned the works. Dozens of coopers, boat-builders, well-drillers, teamsters, carpenters, and masons supported the industry. Transient river men from steamboats and flatboats combined with these residents to earn the Salines a notorious and raucous reputation. Travelers often commented on the continuous noise of steam engines and machinery, the almost constant presence of coal smoke, ash particles, and cinders, and the dismal appearance.”
In the process of building an industry, Dickinson and others notably built an independent legacy in the development of the Kanawha Salines as a community of outstanding architecture and personages. Now a national historic district, Malden, as the town came to be known, includes a rare collection of buildings built prior to the 1830s, including residences and churches that retain their historic character. In 1979, historian James Murray Howard in recommending the district be added to the national register reflected on its role in the development of salt and the value of its historic character.
“The significance of the Malden historic district is twofold. First, it represents a material manifestation ofthe town playing the most prominent role in the development of the salt industry in the Kanawha Valley, an industry which spawned the considerable present-day industrial importance of the valley as a chemical-producing region. The second important feature of the district is its large collection of buildings dating from as early as the 1830s and attesting to the high degree of architectural sophistication brought to Malden earlier than to any other Kanawha Valley town due to the national importance of the saltworks.”
Any mention of Malden should also include mention of Booker T. Washington, who lived there from age nine until he left for Tuskegee at age 25 (or from 1865 until 1881). According to historian Larry Rowe, Washington’s family settled after the Civil War because of the liberal climate and the “good treatment of worker families.” Many slaves at Malden before the war were owned locally and many were on loan from owners in eastern Virginia.
In 1867, after returning from the Civil War, brothers John Quincy and Henry Clay Dickinson joined their father, William Jr., in launching the Kanawha Valley Bank, which they soon built into the largest bank in the state. According to Dave Donelson in a 2015 article published in Family Business Magazine, the Dickinsons maintained 70 percent ownership in the bank, which eventually became One Valley Bancorp and, in 2000, was acquired by the bank holding company BB&T for $1.2 billion.
Seven generations have benefited from William Dickinson’s enterprise, reshaping their interests as the market for salt and other associated commodities transformed. Donelson writes in the introduction to the article “Seventh-generation saltmakers start anew” and that “many venerable family businesses falter because later-generation members lack the founders entrepreneurial spark,” stressing that the case could not be more different with the Dickinson family, members of which reinvested in banking when the demand for salt decreased and reinvested in coal and gas and land when banking it seemed profitable.
More than 100 family members now extend into the ninth generation of the family, and 24 of them are shareholders in three holding companies, the parent company of which is Dickinson Company LLC—Southern Land Company, Hubbard Properties, and the Quincy Coal Company.
“Through the generations the family held on to its land and other assets in various trusts and holding companies,” Donelson writes. A West Virginia University study reports the two sides of the family control 63,249 acres in the state through two companies.
A familial loss of entrepreneurial spirit is certainly not the case with Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne, two members of the seventh generation who are reinvesting in the family business after nearly a century and who have rekindled a popular interest in the Dickinson lineage, invoking the name in their branding: J.Q. Dickinson Salt, marketing the Kanawha salt as a gourmet product.
Possibly far fetched, or so it might have seemed, Nancy Bruns came up with the idea to reinvigorate the saltworks while her husband was delving into his master’s thesis, which coincidentally regarded the industrialization of the Kanawha Valley. He had discovered that the family had abandoned the salt works not because of a lack of brine, but because of a decrease in demand. So there was still, apparently, plenty of brine to be had.
The Bruns had also only recently sold their restaurant in Highland, N.C., and knew well the landscape of local food consumption. Nancy turned to her brother Lewis, a real-estate attorney still living in Charleston, and the two began to speculate. They pulled old maps of the farm, which they’re now leasing from another branch of the family, and soon drilled down to tap a rich flow of brine.
Much of the physical plant they’d need to process and package the salt was also, coincidentally, in place. Nancy and Lewis were able to use the greenhouses and buildings that had served their late cousin Mary Price Ratrie in the operation of her landscaping company Terra Salis. (Terra Salis was also formerly the name of a post office for the Kanawha Salines.) The greenhouses proved ideal evaporation chambers, and large evaporating pans soon filled their hot interiors. Whereas the first Dickinson operations saturated the valley with smoke, the new operations produce no appreciable pollution. Even the byproduct of saltmaking leaves behind “nigari,” a solution sold for use in the production of tofu.
J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works employs a staff of fewer than a dozen employees, as the operation doesn’t require mass production, and Nancy and Lewis have been able to increase production by refining the production process. Lewis traditionally manages production while Nancy oversees marketing, which has enjoyed incredible success. The saltworks now caters to more than 500 accounts across the country, including some of the region’s finest gourmet restaurants, though the salt is also appearing wherever whole foods are being promoted, certainly because of its purity and ties with Appalachian cuisine. Particularly in southern Appalachia, salt has long been a principal ingredient in the production as well as the preservation and presentation of food.
The salt has enjoyed particular popularity in restaurants throughout West Virginia, notably in the Kanawha and Greenbrier valleys where many independent restaurants are located. It’s also being marketed as a chief ingredient in Iapetus Gose, a Germanic salted beer produced at Bridge Brew Works in Fayetteville. The brew is so-named for the Iapetus Ocean, the ancient predecessor of the Atlantic and the source of J.Q. Dickinson salt. The salt has also attracted the attention of journalists working for some of the nation’s largest print publications, including The Atlantic and Esquire Magazine, and is regularly featured on National Public Radio and the Splendid Table food broadcast.
Nancy says she expects the market for whole and locally sourced foods to continue to grow, and believes West Virginia can greatly benefit as a regional source of food.
“I hope it’s not just a trend. I hope it’s a way of life now,” she says, inspecting packages of salt being sent out before the Christmas holiday.
“West Virginia is in a particularly good place when it comes to producing food —we’re surrounded by metropolitan areas that can use what we can provide. The mid-Atlantic market is large, and if the state would focus on agriculture and helping small farmers I believe it could help end our economic woes.”
Continuing to bank on the Appalachian mystique, she says fans of Dickinson salt can expect to see variations on that theme as the market expands. Ramp salt and applewood-smoked salt are among the products the saltworks is unveiling as new users discover the magic of this pristine salt.