Remember a few weeks ago when I introduced you to Hope and Zak, the college kids who won a business competition to make sea salt in Wellfleet? Well, they inspired me to do a little digging. Last week I drove up to Bourne to meet Judy Riordan-Mackenzie, who volunteers at the Bourne Historical Society. She leads tours of the replica saltworks at Aptucxet Trading Post in Bourne, and she told me all about the history of salt production on the Cape. Turns out, it's fascinating.
That photo up there is from the Orleans Historical Society. It shows a windmill pumping seawater into the saltworks sometime in the 1800s, which is when salt production on the Cape was at its peak.
Prior to 1777, there were no commercial saltworks here. Settlers kept a pot of seawater over the fire in the winter to produce small amounts of salt for household use, but when it came to making salt cod, they had to buy the bulk of their salt from England. This all changed with the start of the Revolution. Just like tea, salt was taxed, and colonists were boycotting British goods. Cape Codders had to figure out how to make salt at home, and they had to figure it out fast, because preserving cod as salt cod was their number one industry. The Continental Congress recognized the problem and set out several incentives to increase salt production. These were things like an extra third of a dollar per bushel, which was pretty good since salt sold for six dollars a bushel, or deferment from fighting in the war.
They worked. That same year, John Sears opened the first saltworks in Dennis. His design was pretty simple. He built a 10 by 100 foot wooden platform and filled it with seawater, then waited for the water to evaporate. He produced three bushels that year.
The next year, he redesigned. He added rolling roofs for when it rained, divided production into three stages to filter out impurities, and got 30 bushels. Then Nathaniel Freeman from Harwich came up with another good idea: use a windmill to pump the water into the platforms. That helped a lot. By 1837—sixty years after the first saltworks opened—there were 658 on the Cape. All together they produced 26,000 tons of salt every year.
But then salt mines were discovered in western New York. It was cheaper and easier to mine salt from the ground, and slowly the saltworks on the Cape started to disappear. The railroads meant that the New York salt could be shipped, and even with shipping, it was cheaper. The last saltworks was taken down in 1888.
I'm not sure if there were any commercial salt operations on the Cape between then and now. But now that shipping's getting more expensive, both dollars-wise and environmentally, they're starting to make a comeback. We have Wellfleet Sea Salt Company and Cape Cod Saltworks, and there's also a salt company starting up on the Vineyard.
Next week, I'll bring you more on the actual historic process of producing sea salt.