J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works opened in Malden in 2013, but its story dates back hundreds of years.
Native Americans were the first to discover the salt seeps they called the Great Buffalo Lick, a 10-mile stretch of land along the Kanawha River. They boiled brine from the springs to make salt. In the 1800s, white settlers began mining this area they called the Kanawha Salines, and the salt industry was born.
Among those pioneers was William Dickinson of Bedford County, Virginia, who became one of the leading salt makers in the Kanawha Valley, passing the business down to his son and then grandson, J.Q. Dickinson. In the ensuing years, the town of Malden became known as the salt-making capital of the east and Kanawha Salt became world-renowned, taking first place honors at the 1851 London World’s Fair.
By the turn of the 20th century, the once-booming industry was dead, a victim of powerful market forces that included cheaper competitors and less demand for gourmet product.
Working with the SBDC
Fast-forward to 2013, when siblings Nancy Bruns and Lewis Payne—seventh generation descendants of William Dickinson—decided the advent of the foodie culture would present an opportunity to revive the business, and J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works was born.
In starting up their ambitious project, they sought assistance from the West Virginia Small Business Development Center.
“We really liked working with our SBDC coach and we appreciate the help they have provided us,” said Bruns, a restauranteur and chef.
SBDC Coach Douglas Spaulding said he and former SBDC Coach Terry Cyfers have worked with Bruns for a few years.
“We introduced her to our profit mastery program and it did wonders for her and the business, introducing concepts and just teaching her the profit and loss statement vs. the balance sheet and how to read and understand them both,” Spaulding said.
“We introduced her to different funding modules and securing a line of credit to expand. We spoke of risk vs. reward and the potential for the distribution side of the business. And we introduced her to the entire West Virginia eco-system to make her aware of what resources are available,” he said.
Where past and future meet
As it heads into its sixth year, the future looks bright for J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works —
a young business derived from a 200-year-old predecessor. But it dates back even further from that: 400 million years, to be specific.
It all starts with a single, unobtrusive well, where brine is mined from an ancient ocean that was buried deep beneath the Appalachian Mountains during the Paleozoic Era.
The brine is pumped into custom-built beds in two greenhouses. Evaporation by sunlight leaves the salt crystals, which are hand-harvested, packaged and shipped all over the world.
This year looks to be an even bigger one for J.Q. Dickinson, despite a minor setback last fall.
“We had a fire in November and rebuilt,” Bruns said. We’ve been able to expand our production building. We tore down our old two sun houses and built two new, bigger ones. We hired two new employees and are getting ready to hire two more, bringing our total employees up to 12.”
This year J.Q. Dickinson is adding some new products to its ever-expanding line.
They have partnered with local and regional business to produce everything from culinary offerings to bath products, which can be ordered online or purchased from the gift shop on the premises.
“Our newest products include an Appalachian Brine Mix. You add water and use it for cooking turkey, pork chops and chicken. It makes the meat really juicy,” Bruns said.
Buoyed by the popularity of its Burnt Caramel Sauce, the business is launching three new caramel sauces this year.
“We’ll have a Bourbon Caramel made with Black Draft Distillery out of Martinsburg, a Dark Chocolate made with Appalachian Chocolate Company out of Shepherdstown, and a Spicy Dark Chocolate similar to the Dark Chocolate, but with a hint of ghost pepper.”
J.Q. Dickinson’s 2019 salt-making season began this month and public tours of the production facilities begin next month. They have their work cut out for them, but no one’s complaining.
“We’re kicking off a busy season, with weddings and our Farm-to-Table event series,” Bruns said. “We’re also planning for our 3rd annual BB&T Salt Fest. This year’s event, set for Sept. 28, will be bigger and better than ever. We have lots of fun things falling into place.”