A Tour through Family History: My Fourth of July Weekend at JQ Dickinson Salt-Works

Family history doesn’t run that deep for me, but for Nancy Bruns of JQ Dicksinon Salt-Works, it runs about 350 feet below her family’s homestead in rural West Virginia. Through the veins of the town, through the crags of the aquifer. Just outside of Charleston and spanning a hundred and eighty years. Through trial-and-error, through old crumbled inventories and rheumy, ancient jars. Through the Civil War and the recession.

Through it all, the water of the underground Iapetus Ocean has ran for millions of years—ambivalent to man, to woman, to the dollar store sales and graffiti on the bridges in the next county over. It flowed when the world was hot, when the world grew cold. It created an industry that sustained West Virginia for decades. It became the business of the Dicksinon family, who took hollowed tree trunks and created wells for the water. For the lifeblood, for the salt that preserved and seasoned the heritage at the heart of this Appalachian landscape.

And in the long, long stretch between 1945 and 2013 when the salt production ended, the world moved on. It no longer became a means to live. It no longer became a necessity, but a ubiquitous afterthought on the table. Throw a little over your left shoulder for good luck when it spilled and forget about it the rest of the day. An everyday talisman that lost its power.

Until Nancy created magic again. Until she and her husband researched their history and dug the old wells again. Until they tested the salt, again and again, until the crystals were pure and white and flavorful. Until the industrial wheels began to turn again for this one family, in this one town in West Virginia. And until they decided to create a product that is elemental in every sense of the world: NaCl; sun, water, earth.

And after hearing of this story, of this town whose axis was balanced on the production of salt, I wanted to visit. To see the crystals, the bite on my tongue. I drove down the highway, passed a gas station with carpeted floors and an ice cream stand that sold two-for-a-dollar hot dogs. I stayed in a hotel that was under construction and woke up Sunday to witness it all myself.

Below are a few images from this process. How the water is brought up from the well and evaporated naturally by sunlight in greenhouse tents. Then sifted, inspected, and packaged. Flavored, if they choose, and sold to top chefs. This was the way I spent my Fourth of July weekend, and how I saw the American Dream be reiterated once again. In a small farm in West Virginia.

To learn more about JQ Dickinson Salt-Works, listen to the Southern Foodways Alliance’s Gravy podcast here. You can also visit their website and their Instagram.

The video below was created during my Snapchat takeover for the Feed Feed. You can follow the Feed Feed on snapchat with their username: thefeedfeed. I am happy to be an editor for the Nostalgic Desserts feed as well!

The well and derrick

The well and derrick

The solar greenhouse that evaporates the water naturally

The solar greenhouse that evaporates the water naturally

JQ Dickinson Salt Works Tour
JQ Dickinson Salt Works Tour
JQ Dickinson Salt Works Tour
The naturally-produced crystals

The naturally-produced crystals

JQ Dickinson Salt Works Tour
JQ Dickinson Salt Works Tour
JQ Dickinson Salt Works Tour
Look at these gorgeous crystals!

Look at these gorgeous crystals!

JQ Dickinson Salt Works Tour
JQ Dickinson Salt Works Tour
The old Salt-Works

The old Salt-Works

JQ Dickinson Salt Works Tour
The beautiful farm and store

The beautiful farm and store