OPINION — Salt is an important part of Virginia’s history

Published 10:16 am Thursday, June 3, 2021

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Pass the salt.

We use salt on a daily basis. It’s used to season our food and, when necessary, to help soothe a sore throat.

Before refrigeration, salt was used as an important food preservative and it was the only method utilized to preserve the large quantity of beef and pork needed to feed the Confederate army as well as the civilian population which was about 9 million people in the South during the Civil War. In addition, salt was used in tanning leather.

The Virginia salt mines were located in the southwestern counties of Washington and Smyth, but most of the salt was manufactured in Saltville. After 1808, salt manufacturing became one of the leading industries of the region.

Charles Campbell owned the land where the salt deposits existed. Sodium chloride was a key ingredient in salt. Since coal was used as fuel, production expansion occurred with the steam engine pumping brine and iron from the water as a purification method. Once southerners built their own salt-making facilities they became targets of the Union’s military strategy.

According to the 1840 census, Virginia produced 1,745,618 bushels of salt that year. Eventually 3,478,890 bushels per year were produced. In the fall of 1861, the Saltville salt works were purchased by Stuart, Buchanan and Company and shortly after, the company entered into a contract with the Confederacy to supply their troops with 22,000 bushels per month.

Up and down the southeast coast the Union troops did damage destroying salt mines which influenced salt production and market value. For example, before the war, salt sold for 17 cents a bushel and rose to $8 in 1862.

After 1863 the Saltville salt mine was the last remaining facility with production increasing drastically. By 1864 there were 38 furnaces operating 2,600 kettles producing 4 million bushels. Unfortunately, in December 1864, Union General George Stoneman’s cavalry decimated the Confederate forces via the Virginia and Tennessee Railroad toppling the Saltville defenses burning buildings and smashing kettles and kilns. The Confederacy tried reviving the operation but to no avail. The war was basically over.

During Reconstruction, Saltville became a company town with hospitals, homes and schools. The world’s largest dry ice plant and second chlorine plant prospered there as well. In fact, salt is still mined in Virginia today.

It is interesting to learn that salt in Hawaii is called alaea or Hawaiian red salt. This type of salt is sea salt mixed with iron oxide and is rich in volcanic clay called alaea. It’s the clay that gives this salt its brick red color. Alaea is a vital component of native Hawaiian cuisine used in traditional foods such as kalua pig and pipikaula (Hawaiian jerky). In addition, Hawaiian salt is used in purification blessing of homes, canoes and temples. In the 19th century, large amounts of alaea salt was exported to the Pacific Northwest to fishermen so they could use it to cure salmon, yet, it has undergone a resurgence in popularity in the past 100 years in Hawaii and beyond. Moreover, alaea is used as healing medicine for the body.

It definitely made my day to discover that at the Four Seasons Resort in Hualalai on Big Island you can go out taking a spoon and fabric bag and harvest your own salt like the ancient Hawaiians did, then go back to the resort and participate in a cooking class making native dishes with the salt collected. That sounds great and I would love to participate in that Hawaiian delight.

From the mountains of Virginia to the islands of Hawaii salt is the spice of life that enhances your food and physical health. We are blessed that we can acquire this precious commodity from the land and sea.

Judy Moore is a Central High Museum tour guide living in Wylliesburg, VA. She can be reached at v5agabond1@outlook.com.