CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- More than 200 years ago, early Kanawha Valley settlers built an industry around a commodity we take for granted today -- salt -- which was needed to preserve meat in those pre-refrigeration days.
Brothers Joseph and David Ruffner pioneered a process of drilling deep wells into the underground pool of brine that fed the natural Great Buffalo salt lick, just east of Charleston.
Others soon followed -- Dickinsons, Shrewsburys, Lewises -- all drilling into the brine at a place they called Terra Salis, and later Kanawha Salines. They built furnaces and tapped nearby sources of coal to extract the salt crystals from the brine.
From the War of 1812 to the Civil War, the Kanawha Salt Kings made fortunes. They packed their Kanawha Red Salt, so named because of the iron contained in the brine, into barrels and floated it by flatboat to meatpacking plants in Cincinnati.
Changes in transportation patterns and discoveries of other salt sources -- not to mention a devastating flood -- destroyed the monopoly enjoyed by the saltmakers at what we now call Malden. The Dickinsons managed to hang on well into the 20th century by switching to other brine products, but the others disappeared.
Now a couple of Dickinson descendants are reviving the old salt business, with a twist. Instead of butchers or road crews -- J.Q. Dickinson & Co. used to sell bulk salt as a dust controller for dirt and gravel roads -- the brother and sister team of Lewis Payne and Nancy Bruns are targeting foodies with their gourmet salt. They just finished their first production run.
"We're seventh-generation," Payne said. "William Dickinson, he purchased the property with Joel Shrewsbury and founded J.Q. Dickinson Co. We think they acquired the property in 1817. The salt operations were very big, around 200 people."
Although they drilled the first well closer to present-day Quincy, Dickinson and Shrewsbury learned the best brine was at the family farm at Malden, Bruns said.
"They also extracted other minerals besides salt," she said. "They eventually concentrated on bromides. Our family kept doing it longer than anybody -- through the 1980s. That's when they gave up the bromides."
The Dickinsons expanded into other businesses, like banking. Born in the Civil War, their Kanawha Valley Bank grew through mergers and acquisitions into the state's largest, One Valley Bank, before merging with regional giant BB&T. The family built one of Charleston's first skyscrapers, the Kanawha Valley Building, along with BB&T Square.
"The reason for the bank was the revitalization of the salt industry after the Yankees came through," Bruns said. "They needed a currency that would work for them."
After college, Payne stayed in Charleston to help run the family's natural-resource businesses. Bruns went to a culinary school in New England.
"I'm a chef," she said. "One of the things that interested me was charcuterie -- cutting up meats, salting, making sausage. So I worked in that.
"I've been watching the salt industry, the trends, the number of salts that have come onto the market and, at the same time, learning our family history and seeing an opportunity to bring that back onto the market as Dickinson salt.
"I've also been looking at the movement of restaurants to locally sourcing their products and supporting local farms."
Bruns sees that as more than a temporary fad.
"We see salt as a great opportunity for us. There's a chef in Baltimore. He's a real leader in this movement. He came down here when he heard what we were doing. He was real enthusiastic and wanted us to supply him with 150 pounds every two weeks. He preserves his own meats."
Bruns' and Payne's solar-powered production method, though, can't supply anything near that kind of volume -- at least not yet. They gave a tour of their "plant" at the east end of the Dickinson farm beside Terra Salis, the family's landscaping business.
The heart of the system is the sun house -- a plastic-covered greenhouse dubbed Casa del Dol -- where brine slowly evaporates into salt crystals in a series of shallow pans made of black plastic sheets.