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The Salt Returns
Rebirth of the J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works

By John Lilly. Photographs by Tyler Evert

Gourmet table salt from the J.Q. Dickinson Salt Works in Malden, Kanawha County. Photograph by Tyler Evert.

Two hundred years ago, a 6.5-mile stretch of the Kanawha Valley between today’s downtown Charleston and the town of Quincy, known as the Kanawha Salines, became one of the largest salt-making areas in the United States. Today, a pair of siblings – seventh-generation salt makers – are revitalizing the local salt industry on a small scale, preserving a portion of their family heritage.

Nancy Bruns and her brother, Lewis Payne, are both originally from Charleston. They are descendants of industrial pioneer William Dickinson, who invested in salt properties near present-day Malden in 1813 and began producing salt here in 1817. The Dickinson family continued to manufacture salt and saline byproducts until the 1980’s – by far the longest-lived salt-producing family in the history of West Virginia.

In 2013, Nancy and Lewis committed themselves to finding a way to re-establish salt-making in a sustainable, environmentally friendly way. Nancy, who spent 20-plus years in the culinary field, was well-acquainted with gourmet salts and the demands of the restaurant industry. Most recently she owned and operated a restaurant in North Carolina for 10 years.

“I’ve always enjoyed trends in food,” she says. “About eight or nine years ago, I started watching trends in salt.” An astute woman with a business-like manner, Nancy says that her husband’s master’s thesis in American history drew her attention to her own family’s legacy and to salt-making in particular.  

“He wrote his thesis on the industrialization of the Kanawha Valley, so he was looking at our family through a totally different lens than I had seen it,” she says. “It just occurred to me one day that it would make a lot of sense to start making salt again, with the consumer used to having more than one salt in their cabinet. Also chefs and consumers demanding more locally sourced foods and knowing their producers, and knowing that it is naturally made.

“With our background and access to the same land [as our forebears], it was sort of a no-brainer. We put together a business plan to see if we could make a go of it. I called Lewis and said, ‘Hey….’”

Historically, salt was used as a preservative for meats and other foods. At its peak, more than 50 salt furnaces produced 30 million pounds of salt here annually. Considered America’s finest, Kanawha salt was recognized for its high quality at World’s Fairs in London in 1851 and in Paris in 1867. The salt was loaded into barrels and shipped by boat to Cincinnati, where it was used by meat packers.

The salt itself was coaxed from shallow wells of brine – liquid remnants of an ancient sea known as the Iapetus Ocean, dating back millions of years.

You can read the rest of this article in this issue of Goldenseal, available in bookstores, libraries or direct from Goldenseal.