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Salt of the earth: Siblings revive historic brine business in Malden

Lawrence Pierce
Using a wooden rake, Nancy Bruns pushes crystallized salt from its evaporation bed. She and her brother, Lewis Payne, built a solar-powered sun house to make gourmet table salt from the brine they pump from a well at the Dickinson family farm in Malden.
Lawrence Pierce Lewis Payne decants a sample of the finished product, Appalachian Farm Heirloom salt, in the business office at Terra Salis. His sister, Nancy Bruns (left), a chef, came up with the idea of reviving the family salt business.
Lawrence Pierce Remnants of the once-bustling J.Q. Dickinson & Co. salt works can be found scattered around the Dickinson farm in Malden.
Lawrence Pierce Lewis Payne stands beside a 2,500-gallon tank that's used to settle traces of iron out of the salt-making brine.
Lawrence Pierce In the early 1900s, J.Q. Dickinson & Co. made a variety of salt products in Malden, including one called Dust-Lay, used to keep down dust on dirt roads (middle right).

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.

The brine, of course, comes from underground. To help find the best location, Payne and Bruns brought in geologist John Bullock, of Gaddy Engineering.

"We found some of the old well logs that identified where the geological formations are," Payne said. "That helped us find the salt sands."

At Bullock's direction, they drilled a well last May in a field not far from the sun house, 345 feet deep.

"At that depth, we got salinity of ocean water, around 4 percent," Bullock said. "The deeper you go, the saltier it gets and the more minerals there are."

Brine from the well goes to a hose tap in a nearby pump house. When needed, they hook up a hose to fill a 2,500-gallon plastic tank that sits outside the sun house.

"The reason we got the big tank is to let the iron settle," Payne said. Unlike their predecessors, who sold red salt, Payne and Bruns let the iron settle and gravity-feed the clear brine into the sun house.

"We've got two different beds," Payne said. "One is the evaporation bed. That sets for about two weeks and goes from about four inches [deep] to two inches. Then we move from that bed to the longer one. That gets the brine really thin so we can get the crystallization started."

It's very much a hands-on process. They use a wooden rake to push the crystals out of the brine and keep them from forming into larger clumps.

Hot, too, as the sun house creates a lot of solar gain. "It gets over 150 degrees in there on a hot day," Bruns said. "You can't stay in there very long. You have to work in the early morning."

For final drying -- it's too humid outside -- Bruns and Payne take the salt crystals into their office in the old Terra Salis shop and spread them onto racks.

"We clean it, any debris, and package it," Bruns said. "One rotation of the sun house is 175 pounds in three weeks."

That might not sound like a lot, but, divided into containers as small as two ounces, it goes a long way.

According to a draft price list, a 2-ounce tin of Appalachian Farm Heirloom salt would retail for $5.

"It's a finishing salt," Bruns said, "something you add to a dish when it's cooked -- a steak when you take it off the grill, or cantaloupe after you cut it up. It finishes the flavor. You get a burst of flavor when you're eating it, experiencing the texture of the salt with the texture of the food and the flavor of the salt and the food."

Although stores are flooded with varieties of gourmet salts these days, Bruns thinks her product fills a nearly unique niche.

"This Peruvian Pink salt," she said, pointing at one of a half-dozen or so small bottles, "is the only other commercial salt that's made from brine." All the rest are sea salts.

Their Heirloom salt, the first of what they hope will be a whole line of Appalachian Farm salts, should arrive on area shelves within a month or so, Payne said.

"We'll start locally -- Capitol Market, Tamarack, The Greenbrier -- and work outward," he said. "We think the South and Mid-Atlantic are our major markets."

Reach Jim Balow at balow@wvgazette.com or 304-348-5102.


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