In Malden a seventh-generation business draws on an ancient natural resource to please a modern palate.
Lewis Payne, chief operating officer of J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works in Malden, is a practical man, one part professional in the resource management industry and one part entrepreneur. Still, he believes the story of his family’s business shows the hand of fate. How else could he and his sister Nancy Bruns manage the successful rebirth of their seventh-generation, family-owned salt refining business after decades of stillness? How else could the operation evolve from a defunct mineral refining trade to a chef-acclaimed, hand-harvested gourmet salt company? “A lot of things had to go right, because a lot of things could have gone wrong,” he says.
Whether it was fate or shrewd business sense, it all started hundreds of millions of years ago when the rising Appalachian Mountains swallowed up Iapetus, a vast briny ocean and ancestor of the Atlantic. The salty traces left over from Iapetus’ death would shape the economy of an entire region, not to mention the fortunes of several West Virginia families. Among them, Payne and Bruns’ ancestor William Dickinson, a 19th century economic pioneer from Virginia. Dickinson got hooked on the newly discovered Kanawha salt and, in 1813, invested in property along the river. The initial drilling was dangerous, backbreaking work. “The way they first drilled wells was very different,” Bruns says. “They took hollowed out sycamore trees and drove them into the ground. Then they put a man inside and he would dig and send back up buckets of muck.”
By 1817 Dickinson was making white gold. His business became one of the largest and longest-operating salt producers in the area. Kanawha Valley pure white salt caught the attention of connoisseurs, winning best salt in the world at the 1851 London World’s Fair. Even after a flood in 1861 and the Civil War shuttered many regional salt makers, J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works didn’t stop production until 1945.
Decades after its heyday, the salt works found a new champion in Bruns, who is now the company’s CEO. She and her husband had sold their restaurant in North Carolina, her husband was going back to school for a graduate degree in history, and something about his master’s thesis on the salt industry sparked her interest. She knew some of her family’s history and, being in the food business, she also knew of the recent resurgence in gourmet salt use and the growing interest in local and sustainable food production. Himalayan, black Cyprus, hand-raked crystals from salt ponds in France—minerals from around the world were being marketed as key flavors, each with a unique story behind its production. “Being in the food industry, we were devoting more and more of our pantry to different salts and it occurred to me that there was a market for it. We should be making salt,” she says.
She called her brother. “At first I was taken aback. It seemed drastic,” Payne says. “But the more I thought about it the more it made sense. We had the history.” With Payne’s expertise in resource management and Bruns’ knowledge of the culinary arena, the brother/sister team approached their cousins, who now own the land and farm where the salt works once stood, and asked to lease some earth. With a full-service landscape design firm called TerraSalis already going strong on the property, complete with the greenhouses Bruns and Payne would need to dry the salt, it really did seem like fate.
Working with Gaddy Engineering in Charleston and relying on historical documents they’d uncovered from family members across the country, Bruns and Payne chose a spot and started drilling their own well. At 350 feet they hit the salty spot. “Fortunately we hit saltwater right were we thought we would. We were lucky,” she says. At that depth the water was four to five percent sodium chloride. “About that of an ocean.”
Then came quality control. “We knew we could make salt from this source but we didn’t really know what we’d get,” Bruns says. “So we played around with it for three or four months and experimented at different stages, and depths, and bed sizes, and harvest times.” Finally, “We got this amazingly beautiful salt and we tasted it. It brought tears to our eyes. I knew we could make salt. I didn’t know it would be this good.”
With decades of regional history under their feet, Bruns and Payne pride themselves on working with local businesses for marketing and other services whenever possible. And they actively promote their businesses’ lack of carbon footprint. The salt is sundried, hand-harvested, and hand-packaged by a small team—Bruns and Payne regularly get their hands salty on harvest days. It’s about as sustainable as you can get.
It’s all just part of their story, they say, and it’s one reason why consumers are lining up at the many stores now selling their products. “We want to support local consumers and restaurants. That’s the reason we’re filling this niche. People want to know where their food is coming from. People are attracted to an authentic brand that has a good story,” Bruns says. “A lot of brands make up a look that appears authentic, but it’s all smoke and mirrors. Ours is true. It’s seven generations of history.”
Written by Mikenna Pierotti
Photographed by Elizabeth Roth