March 1993

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in Western New York


Robert G. Koch


As soon as American colonists turned their backs on the briny deep and struck inland, they applied ingenuity and industry to reproduce the ocean's largess.

New England's export of cod depended on salt, which was imported from the West Indies and Portugal until local supplies could be developed. Caribbean sea water was evaporated under the hot sun, but New England's "day's eye" was often blood-shot or closed. Cape Cod offered bounteous salt water but limited firewood for evaporating it by boiling in iron pans. Nevertheless, salt boxes were temporarily filled and a style of building was named for them.

Ancient seas had of course covered vast inland areas eons before. Their deposits of salt lay in briny underground lakes that frequently gushed in salt springs or lay crystallized in domes and layers deep underground. Deer, buffalo, and other large animals often made their way to salt licks, thereby locating them for pioneer settlers and, not incidentally,—in something like the belief about catching a bird by putting salt on its tail—giving the settler an advantageous potshot at his prey. It is instructive that the location of salt licks played a part in the restless peregrinations of Daniel Boone, the redoubtable woodsman.

Pioneer farmers early fashioned logs with salt-filled notches for their livestock, and an old saying for obtaining one's end by indirect means advised "salting the cow to catch the calf." Salt was also used to preserve food, raise bread and biscuits in the absence of yeast, and spike an often monotonous diet. On the frontier, as historian J. C. Furnas tells us, "Mere distance from salt for packing the hog crop, as well as daily table use, seriously slowed settlement." And salt was considered important enough that state governments set aside salt reservations for the public interest.

In Central and Western New York it was first obtained from gushing springs. French Jesuit missionaries reported them in the mid-17th century and taught the Indians evaporation techniques. A century and a half later, post-Revolutionary war American settlers began to boil down Onondaga area brine. In a 12-hour stint in 1789, Asa Danforth and Comfort Tyler reduced enough brine to make 13 bushels of salt that was treasured in the surrounding country. More than a cord of wood was needed to maintain the fire. Others joined in to provide for their own needs. Larger and larger kettles were used and within a decade a building was erected to house the process.

Later, brine from springs and wells was pumped to the cauldrons along troughs, and other processing improvements followed. At first pumping was done manually; then, as the distances increased, horse and water power were used. According to agricultural historian, Ulysses Hedrick, "In 1826, the State bought most of the pump works and enlarged them sufficiently to supply all manufacturers of brine. By 1841, 3,000,000 bushels of salt were being manufactured annually in [the Syracuse area], the work giving employment to 3,000 men."

Salt making and shipping demanded much available wood. As the English traveler Captain Marryat reported in 1838: "Boats are constantly employed up and down the canal transporting wood for...the furnaces. It is calculated that two hundred thousand cord of wood are required every year...; as they estimate upon an average sixty cords of wood per acre in these parts, those salt works are the means of yearly clearing away upwards of three thousand acres of land." He adds that the salt was barreled and shipped by canal and lake to Canada, Michigan, Chicago, and the West.

Hedrick continues; "It does not appear, however, that early settlers gave much attention to the manufacture of salt at other places than those in a radius of a few miles from Syracuse, although there were salt springs at Montezuma, Wayne county, Oak Orchard on Lake Ontario, and several rather weak springs on the east shore of Cayuga from which some salt was evaporated."

About 1800, before the Onondaga factories, or "salt blocks," as they were called, were going full tilt, salt transported overland by teams sold for $5 a barrel in Geneseo, just up the hill from today's Retsof, where salt mining would be launched in 1884. But that's a story for next time.

© 1993, Robert G. Koch
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