7th Generation Salt-maker Driving Economic Development in Appalachia

Open Road — Week Five by Team WCKD Wolverines

It’s the final week of our Open Road journey, and as we enter West Virginia, we are surrounded by the natural wonders of The Mountain State. A state located entirely within the Appalachian Region it’s easy to see where West Virginia gets its nickname. At 7:30pm on Sunday, we reach the beautiful house of our business partner — Nancy Bruns, a 7th generation salt-maker and the co-founder of J.Q.Dickinson Salt-Works. The white and green of the house was complimented perfectly by the greenery in her vast backyard. While having a sumptuous dinner, we learn about the rich 200-year-old family trade in Malden, West Virginia — a community perhaps best known for Booker T. Washington, the Kanawha Salines salt wells, and J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works.

We spend our Monday morning learning the process of generating the artisanal and hand-harvested salt. Naturally sourced from the Iapetus Ocean underneath the Appalachian mountains, the brine is gleaned from the earth by an underground brine aquifer. The salt is then processed naturally using the power of the sun and gentle mountain breezes. As I take the pinch of salt in my hand and taste it, I can safely say that it is the best salt that I have ever tasted. Growing up, I learned that salt is essential to the health of humans and is one of the five basic taste sensations. But I never knew that there were so many variants of it! After an insightful lesson from Nancy and tasting 12 different salt types, I walked away feeling like newly dubbed salt-connoisseur.

We spent the Monday afternoon learning about the business and scoping our project. It was heartwarming to listen to Nancy talk passionately about her vision for the economic development of Kanawha County, and West Virginia. Nancy spoke of her long term goals of becoming an aggregator by expanding partnerships with other Appalachian food and craft producers, and becoming a distributor to other retailers nationally, as well as the go-to place for the end consumers.

We brainstormed multiple options with Nancy as to what it would take for her to achieve her goal. After thorough discussion and analysis, the team compiled a strategic growth plan for Salt-Works to increase the reach of handcrafted Appalachian products by increasing their vendor partnerships and selling a higher number of Appalachian products through a new website to individual consumers across the nation. The focus of our work was on an innovative model that would grow the customer base for Salt-Works.

Uncle Ben from Marvel Comics famously said, “With great power comes great responsibility.” On that note, J.Q. Dickinson Salt-Works is the poster child of West Virginia, and I believe with Nancy’s passion and desire to support economic development in the region, it is definitely possible. In 1851, “The Great Kanawha Salt” was awarded “The Best Salt in The World” at the World’s Fair in London. Today, Nancy and her team are not only reviving the family’s salt-making tradition on the very same land where it all began but also making a difference for the West Virginia community, and I feel privileged to have been a part of her vision.