Salt Kettle

When the salt works were in production, historian Henry Coffeen wrote, nearly every early road in the area ran to the site. Before there were roads, animal paths and Native American trails led to the area where the brackish water made its way to the surface. Numerous arrowheads were found in the area reflecting it was a favored hunting place of Native Americans.

It was one of those rare autumn days when the air was so still leaves seemed to be suspended after they bid their homes goodbye. An elderly man and woman were admiring the autumn colors and reading the sign at the Pioneer Cemetery near the Salt Kettle Rest Area when I checked the trail. A dead tree had fallen on the woodland path but they had made their way over the prone sentinel of the forest.

They introduced themselves as Virginians but then said they could also call themselves Hawkeyes. They had spent the first half of their lives in Iowa and then moved to Virginia. The husband then pointed out they might not be able to say Hawkeyes much longer, because the scale of life would soon tip to Virginia. From the way they nearly jumped the fallen tree, there was a good chance they were going to be Virginians.

They had read the information available on the cemetery and had a few questions about Lincoln’s connection to the people resting there. But that wasn’t their main interest, they had more questions about the area’s connection to pioneer salt making. It took place about a mile distant from the Rest Area. The visitors had already viewed the large kettle near the visitor’s center at the Rest Stop. It is one of the original vessels used to render salt at the salt works in the early 1800s.

I informed the couple when the salt works were in production, historian Henry Coffeen wrote, nearly every early road in the area ran to the site. Before there were roads, animal paths and Native American trails led to the area where the brackish water made its way to the surface. Numerous arrowheads were found in the area reflecting it was a favored hunting place of Native Americans.

Large kettles were brought to the area on the Wabash and Big Vermilion Rivers and then transported overland by ox teams to the site. When in peak production, 80 to l00 large kettles were rendering salt from wells drilled deep into the earth to obtain saline water.

It took 100, and sometimes more, gallons of water to produce one bushel of salt. A true bushel weighed seventy pounds. A small settlement grew around the salt works and production continued for many years. It was the first industry in Vermilion County. As late as 1840, even though production had declined, it was reported 3,000 bushels of salt were produced.

The federal government recognized the importance of salt production to the expanding nation and it withheld sale of the saline lands when other property was offered for sale. When the government made the saline land available, funds obtained from the sale of the Illinois land had no restrictions on their use. Other states were directed to use saline funds for education. Strip mines erased the site of the original salt works but there was a time when rows of kettles, each holding 140 gallons of saline water, ushered in the first industry in Vermilion County.

A bit of the above information was given to the couple who had visited the Pioneer Cemetery as we made our way back to the Salt Kettle Rest Area on the fine autumn day. Then they left in their car headed for Iowa to visit relatives. Once they were Hawkeyes, but they would soon be certified Virginians.

Donald Richter’s column appears every other week in the Commercial-News. He is a member of the Vermilion County Museum Board.

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