From the Wellsville Daily Reporter, December 23, 1985.
Transcribed by Crist Middaugh.
Genesee Reflections - Bill Greene
In the past few days I have received a number of calls on the subject of “black salts,” so it would be proper to delve into the matter. Just what were they, and why were they important in the local economy? The first thing is to sort out the meaning of the term and separate it from some similar items. The term “black salts” does not appear in the dictionary. From a collection of sources we can come up with the related compounds of potash and pearl ash. Potash is defined as “so-called form being prepared for commercial purposes by evaporating the lixivium of wood ashes in iron pots.” The chemical name is Potassium Hydroxide - a hard, white, brittle compound - strongly alkaline and caustic - used in fertilizer and soap. Pearl ash is the chemical Potassium Carbonate made by heating Potassium Hydroxide.
Now we know that we are dealing with a product made from wood ashes. The place where the process was carried on was called an ashery. The location of asheries throughout the county is documented by number in the 1845 census. There were some forty-five throughout the county, and each town had at least one. At first glance through Beer’s History I find only three references to these establishments. I know that there are more. But for some reason they are not treated as other businesses with regular listings. Rather they seem to be mentioned in the personal biographical sketches. A typical entry my be “in 1830 Curtis Baker built an ashery two miles west of the village. He continued in the business for some eight years.” (This was in Andover). Stephen Smith was operating in Cuba, and Nathaniel Mills was at Mills Mills in 1825. Thus is would take a page by page reading to locate most of the places. As memory serves the largest ashery was about where the Davis Gym is in Alfred.
Now we come to the actual process.
When the pioneer settlers arrived in then Genesee Country they sound most of it covered with a forest of massive trees. To the future farmers there trees were more of a liability than an asset. They had to be disposed of. At first they would be girdled (a strip of bark was removed all the way around the trunk). This caused the tree to die and allowed the sunlight to reach the first floor where grain could be scattered. As time permitted these hulks were felled and burned. The stumps were removed by hand digging, and horse power, and dragged into fence rows. The ashes were carefully collected and taken to the general store or directly to the ashery. It looks like more than one merchant ran both businesses at the same place. Traditionally the ashes were worth 12 1/2 cents per bushel in trade.
A few years ago I took down one of the largest elms trees in the county. The limbs were not good enough for the fireplace so they were burned in a pile in the garden. There were probably five cords of wood in the pile which reduced to about twelve bushels of ashes. Remember, now, that in the early eighteen hundreds we were paying about $3 per acre for land, therefore twenty-four bushels of ashes would pay for an acre.
When the ashes reaches the ashery they would have been dumped into a fairly god sized cistern in the ground, and covered with water. The cistern could have been made of wood or stone - just so long as it was relatively watertight. There would have to have been some way to drain the water after it had leached through the ashes. In my experiment I used and old 100-cup coffee urn (being aluminum it was partly dissolved). Water was allowed to seep through the ashes until it ran clear. From this point the procedure would be similar to making maple sugar. Put the liquid in a large iron kettle and boil it dry. I used an old copper wash boiler over the picnic arch. I collected about twelve bushels of ashes I collected about three pounds of light gray powder. Why it dod not dissolve the container I do no know because I put a little of the powder in some water and it dissolved the stirring spoon. It must have a pH of 14 (the most alkaline you can get).
Now you can see the advantage of refining the product so close to the site - a ton of ashes would yield about a pound of potash.
So now we have this potent stuff. What do we use it for? Until it was discovered that the mineral could be mined a lot cheaper about 1850, there were two principle uses. Some would be used locally in the manufacture of soap. Just mix it with lard (which everybody had) and cook it (of our doors!). The rest was shipped back east to make glass.
In later years Allegany chemical wood was used locally (in Birdsall) or exported to make alcohol, charcoal or acetates. All along a few of the ashes were kept at home for food preservation. My grandmother described to me how ashes would be leached in a barrel of corn to make hominy.
It would be interesting to try to locate the remains of one of our asheries, and do an excavation. With about 45 sites to work on, something should be found.