SEARCY (AP) — Salt is a commodity that can be found in nearly every restaurant and home in the U.S. It even comes in little packets when purchasing fast food.
But in the 1860s, salt was highly valued, as it was the only means of preserving meat during the day. Keeping something cold to preserve it was often out of the question. Therefore, people during the 1860s had to use salt to keep their meat as long as possible — especially when a person was moving from camp to camp during the Civil War.
In August of 1864, Union troops led by Gen. J.R. West were heading north from Little Rock when they came through White County in search of 4,000 Confederate soldiers, led by Col. Thomas McCrary and Gen. Joe Shelby. The Confederates were in the area as they prepared for their next move during the war.
At this time in White County history, people were mining for salt by digging into the ground, getting the ground water and boiling down the water to get the salt.
The Union troops knew the value of salt to the health of the Confederate troops, so they destroyed a saltworks in Bald Knob.
“Salt was important to both armies, but since the Union troops had their food shipped in from the North, they wanted to eliminate the Confederates’ ability to preserve meat,” said Scott Akridge, board member with the White County Historical Society.
Akridge filled out paperwork in August to apply to get a marker in Bald Knob to commemorate the destruction of the saltworks through Arkansas Civil War Sesquicentennial Commission.
By the end of November, Akridge had received word that the commission would provide $1,000 in matching funds for the placement of a marker in front of Bald Knob City Hall, which is about five miles southeast of where the saltworks was located. It is being placed at city hall so more people will see it; and because one of the requirements for the marker was that it had to have safe and adjacent parking.
“A lot of the markers around the state commemorate battles, such as the one we already placed at Whitney’s Lane,” Akridge said. “The commission was really interested in this because a saltworks being destroyed is very unusual.”
The saltworks were a big business during the 1860s in the Bald Knob area. Akridge said the area is one of about a dozen in the state where the ground water had enough salinity in it that salt could be extracted from it. To extract the salt, the workers would dig holes in the ground about 10 feet deep and 3 feet wide until they hit the water table. At that time, they would use buckets to take out the water and then boil it in large kettles. They would continue to use smaller and smaller kettles until the water was saturated with salt and the salt could then be dried.
When the Union troops attacked, they destroyed 11 salt kettles, six evaporating flats and took eight people for prisoner.
One of the kettles that has survived since the 1860s is often on display at the Pioneer Village, operated by the White County Historical Society.
Akridge said that the story of the saltworks is not very known by people outside of the county.
“The only known reference to the destruction of the saltworks is in the Official Records of the Union and Confederate Armies, which is a 128-volume set that is now accessible online,” he said. “Most people have no idea of what went on during the war because there was no functioning newspaper at that time.”
Akridge said the marker for the site should be in the ground by the spring. He expressed his appreciation to the Bald Knob Rotary Club, the Bald Knob Lions Club and Mr. William H. Collison, Jr. for their donations to match the funds provided by the sesquicentennial commission.
He said he plans to work on getting two more markers in the area; one at Searcy Landing, where significant events occurred in 1862-1864; and another at Des Arc Bayou, where there was a skirmish in 1863.
Akridge said the White County Historical Society is interested in finding more of the salt kettles. If anyone has a salt kettle, Akridge asks for them to call the historical society.