Salt thus manufactured is of the purest quality, white and beautiful as the driven snow

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 20, 2016

Though few Civil War battles were fought there, Southwestern Virginia was critically important to the Confederacy. One reason was the salt works in Saltville, which provided the Confederacy’s main source of salt, used as a preservative for army rations.

Two battles took place in an effort to control the works. In the first, on October 2, 1864, Brig. Gen. Stephen G. Burbridge’s Union cavalry column struck, but was defeated by Southern forces patched together from several reserve units, commanded by Brig. Gen. John Echols & Maj. Gen. John C. Breckinridge. However, Union General George Stoneman’s troops overwhelmed the town on December 20, and this time managed to destroy the saltworks.

Interior of Saltworks at Saltville, VAInterior of Saltworks at Saltville, VA, 1864-5.

In its coverage of the battles, Harper’s Weekly provided an interesting side bar discussing how salt was produced:

The salt manufactured here is of the very best quality. The works have been deemed so important by the rebels that a Richmond paper lately declared the loss of Savannah an inferior consideration.

“The valley at the head of which Saltville stands,” says Porte Crayon [onsite sketch artist for the newspaper], “contains several hundred acres of rich meadow. It is surrounded by a chain of conical hills, from 500 to 800 feet in height, so regularly formed that, but for their extent, they might be mistaken for artificial mounds.

“At the distance of 230 feet below the surface is a bed of fossil salt. The salt is procured by sinking beds to the depth of the salt bed, when the water rises within 46 feet of the surface, and is raised from thence by pumps into large tanks, or reservoirs, elevated a convenient distance above the surface. The brine thus procured is a saturated solution, and for every hundred gallons yields twenty-two gallons of pure salt.

“The process of manufacturing it is very simple. An arched furnace is constructed, probably 150 feet in length, with the doors at one end and the chimney at the other. Two rows of heavy iron kettles, shaped like shallow bowls, are built into the top of the furnace. Large wooden pipes convey the brine from the tanks to these kettles, where the water is evaporated by boiling, while the salt crystallizes and is precipitated.

“During the operation a white saline vapor rises from the boilers, the inhalation of which is said to cure diseases of the lungs and throat. At regular intervals an attendant goes round and with a mammoth ladle dips out the salt, chucking it into loosely woven split baskets, which are placed in pairs over the boilers. Here it drains and drips until the dipper has gone his round with the ladle.

“It is then thrown into the salt-shells, immense magazines on either side of the furnaces. The salt thus manufactured is of the purest quality, white and beautiful as the driven snow. Indeed, on seeing the men at work in the magazines, with pick and shovel, a novice would swear they were working in a snow-bank: while the pipes and reservoirs, which at every leak become coated over with snowy concretions, sparkling like hoar-frost and icicles in the sun, serve to confirm the wintry illusion.

“To avoid land-carriage the brine is piped to the banks of the Holston, and manufactured on the spot. The salt is packed in barrels and is carried Westward down the river, or Eastward on the railroad. An immense coopering establishment is the characteristic adjunct of the lower salt-works.”

sources: Harper’s Weekly, January 14, 1865; online at

2 Responses

  • Ralph Eastridge says:

    My father was born and raised in Saltville, Va. I remember many summer vacations to visit family and friends. Some the my best memories are of visiting Saltville.

  • Steve Surber says:

    My mom and dad are from Saltville, I always enjoyed visiting family and spent many summers there myself. Talk about southern hospitality, there’s plenty of it in those mountains and hollers.

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Commies, Steelies, Aggies and Glassies

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 19, 2016

Before the video game, before television, the marble-take-marble world of commies, steelies, aggies and glassies kept children hunkered in the dirt and out of trouble. Marbles games like potsies and chasies flourished in many a Depression era schoolyard nationwide.

S.C Dyke & Co of Akron, OH manufactured the first mass-market marbles in the United States, beginning in 1884. Made of clay and sometimes called “commies,” these were manufactured until the end of World War I. While not always perfectly round or colorful, the commie was inexpensive. In response to the growing popularity of marbles, manufacturers began experimenting with making marbles from other materials. In time, porcelain and glass were used to make marbles of different colors and patterns.

Salesman’s Sample Case of Alley Agate Marbles, about 1940.

The price for the newer porcelain marbles was substantially more than the older commies – about 90 cents for 1000 vs. about 20 cents for 1000.

With the glass marble’s rise to predominance, America truly became the marble-making capital of the world. By the first half of the twentieth century, great names like M.F. Christensen, Christensen Agate, Akro, Peltier, Alley, Champion, and Marble King began to work their wizardry in glass.

Marble King is today one of only two companies—along with Parkersburg, W.Va.-based JABO Inc.—that still make marbles in the United States. Jabo, founded in the 1980s, is a relative newcomer, but Marble King is the last of the old-time marble companies, with deep roots in West Virginia’s glass manufacturing world.

In 1932, Lawrence Alley started the Alley Agate Company at Pennsboro, WV. These years of the Great Depression were not easy times to start a business, even though the seasoned Alley had started four glass manufacturing companies by that point in his career. B. J. Hazelbaker, who worked for the company, remembered times when Mr. Alley placed cardboard in his shoes to cover the holes in the soles.

It wasn’t long before the local power company was unable to supply Alley Agate with enough electrical power, so Alley put in a gas generator to meet the company’s power needs.

Lawrence Alley, Jr. started working for his father in 1935 in Pennsboro. The following year, the elder Alley purchased the building formerly used by Gilligan Glass Company in St. Marys, which was at the time being used by a local grower to pack apples; the plant was a partnership between father and son.

By 1937, they were making 750,000 marbles a day, with four machines running full time, and that July expected to ship five railroad carloads. The next year they were making 2 million a day. In January 1939 Alley Agate was described in the local paper as the largest marble manufacturer in the world.

During the peak of the marble demand in the 1940s Alley Agate was running at full capacity of 2.6 million marbles a day. During one 6 month period they shipped 14 million Chinese checker marbles. The Chinese checkers game was very big at that time, and a large percentage of the marbles went into the games.

Alley Agate’s primary customer for marbles and “Chiquita” toy dishes was the Jack Pressman Toy Company.

“My cousin, Frank Sellers, talked with a woman who had been Mr. Alley’s secretary in the early years in Pennsboro,” observes Lawrence E. Alley III. “She was an old lady by then. She would open the mail and only give Mr. Alley the important pieces.

“In the mail one day was a letter from Jack Pressman, whom they did not know. She almost threw it out, but decided it might be important and passed it on to Mr. Alley. Pressman became their primary customer with many millions of marbles going into his Chinese checkers.”

In 1947 the company name was changed to Alley Glass and Manufacturing Company. This reflected the wider product line, which included toy dishes, small glass animals and electrical insulators.

“Maybe it was just a joke,” says Lawrence E. Alley III, “but the reason my dad told me was that they got tired of people thinking their name was Mr. Alley Agate.”

In 1949 Lawrence Alley, Sr. retired, and that July the company was sold to a new glass manufacturer then being put together by Berry Pink and Sellers Peltier. Pink had worked as a glass salesman for Alley in 1931-32 at the former’s Lawrence Glass Novelty Company, of Paden City, WV.  Peltier Glass had been manufacturing and selling marbles under the Marble King header since the 1930s, but by 1949, Pink was selling more marbles than Peltier could produce.

Berry Pink, who traveled throughout the country hosting marble tournaments and giving away several marbles at each stop, eventually had become known as “The Marble King.” That’s how the company got its name. It went into production in December 1949, with Pink holding the majority of shares.

In January of 1958 a fire destroyed Marble King’s St. Marys-based factory. Roger Howdyshell, who managed the facility, moved the company to Paden City, where it still remains today. Howdyshell led Marble King to the forefront when he manufactured the first American made Cat’s Eye marbles.

Lawrence Alley, Sr. was actually responsible for bringing the method of making the cat’s eye to this country. “He sent some of his people to Japan to buy a Cat’s eye machine,” explains Lawrence E. Alley III. “They could not come to an agreement over the price of the machine. But, in the process of negotiations they learned how to make the cat’s eye.”


One Response

  • Lawrence Alley, III says:

    Marble King was completely responcable for sending people to Japan and bringing the “Cat’s Eye” to U.S. I, Larry Alley, was missinformed.

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Blount County Alabama’s Covered Bridges

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 16, 2016

Back at the end of October Blount County, AL celebrated the 33rd annual Blount County Covered Bridge Festival. The county bills itself the ‘Covered Bridge Capital of Alabama,’ with 3 remaining historic bridges: the Horton Mill Bridge, the Swann Covered Bridge (also called the Joy Covered Bridge or Swann-Joy Covered Bridge), and the Easley Bridge. All are closed to road traffic.

Locals are quick to point out that the three bridges are listed in the National Register of Historic Places. Indeed, they play a central role today in bringing tourism to the area. In the county seat of Oneonta, the Chamber of Commerce slogan proudly reads “Your Bridge to a Brighter Tomorrow,” and The Horton Mill Bridge is featured on the seal of the Blount-Oneonta Chamber of Commerce.

Blount County was originally home to 12 covered bridges, built beginning in the 1920s. Without any machinery to hoist the beams into the air, the construction teams used ropes to create these massive structures. Beams were bolted together with large nuts to prevent theft during the hard economic times.

Easley Bridge is Blount County's oldest and shortest covered bridge.

Easley Bridge is Blount County’s oldest and shortest covered bridge.

Located off U.S. Highway 231 three miles north of Oneonta, the Easley Bridge is the county’s oldest and shortest covered bridge. Its single span stretches 95 feet across the Dub Branch tributary and, until recently, had been in continual use since 1927.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Swann Bridge, named for owners of the surrounding land, and the second longest covered bridge in Alabama. This structure measures 324 feet across and is located on a section of the Locust Fork of the Little Warrior River.

Built in 1933, Swann Bridge originally was dubbed the Joy Bridge, because it led into the tiny settlement known as Joy. Visitors to Blount County can easily locate this bridge near Highway 79 and the town of Cleveland.

Swann Bridge is the second longest covered bridge in Alabama.

Swann Bridge is the second longest covered bridge in Alabama.

But the best known of Blount County’s covered bridges is off Highway 75, five miles north of Oneonta. The 220 foot-long double-span Horton Mill Bridge stands 70 feet above the Calvert Prong of the Little Warrior River, giving it the distinction of being the highest covered bridge above water in the United States. It’s also noteworthy as the first bridge in the South to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The 14 foot-wide bridge, built in 1934-5, replaced an earlier bridge accessing Thurman M. Horton’s water mill complex about three-quarters of a mile downstream. The area was known as Sand Valley and lay at the foot of Sand Mountain.

The bridge is of the “town truss” type. The building crew —“fifteen men working from sunup to sundown”— was supervised by Talmedge Horton, a descendent of T. M’s, along with brothers Forrest and Zelmer C. Tidwell, who also built the Swann Bridge, Easley Bridge and Nectar Bridge.

The Horton Mill Bridge was the first bridge in the South to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The Horton Mill Bridge was the first bridge in the South to be placed on the National Register of Historic Places.

The abutments rest on the rock ledges of the gorge while an intermediate pier support is built of masonry and concrete. The timbers are hand-hewn oak, felled in the valley and raised to the bridge by rope.

Prudence Horton says of her grandfather’s efforts to obtain payment for the bridge: “The government people here didn’t have the money to pay him when Grandpa got the bridge finished, so he and another fellow set off on horseback for Birmingham to collect what was owed him. Grandpa was expecting to be paid in paper money, but when he got there, they paid him in silver. By the time they got back home with all that money, the horses’ hides had been rubbed raw from the weight of it.”

Horton’s Bridge, as with all other covered bridges, was roofed to keep supporting timbers dry—and therefore free of rot. Until Horton built his bridge, the hill dwellers could cross only at a single ford in Little Warrior River, and then only when the water was at a safe level. Horton’s bridge gave the mountain folk easy access to town and to the thriving businesses he operated alongside the bridge.


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Christmas Eve at a Lumber Camp

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 15, 2016

Often during the winter evenings and on Sundays some of the woodsmen would drop in on Mr. Smith to discuss some problem concerning their work, or perhaps something of a personal nature for which they felt a need for help. Here, they knew, they had a sympathetic friend whom they could trust, and one capable of many things.

One such visitor was a young man from Virginia. Upon answering his knock at the door, the superintendent invited him in, and offered him a chair. Shyly the young man began:

“Mr. Smith, I want to send a letter to my mother, and with it send some money I have earned here. She will be needing it now. One of the men told me today that you would help me. You see I cannot write, and I thought maybe you would write the letter for me. I would like you to tell her that I am well; that this is a good camp where I have a warm bed to sleep in and plenty of food. Good food every day like we have at home on Christmas, sometimes. Please tell her, too, that I sat in your office while you wrote the letter for me.”

“My mother was a high-born lady, my dad once told me, but after she ran away and married my dad, her parents disowned her. My dad was a good man, and when I was a half-grown boy he went away to work in the woods as I have done now. He went up on Little Black and there he got lost in a snowstorm and the man who brought him home told us… ‘He died from exposure.’

“Maybe this letter will keep Mom from worrying too much about me.”

author: Frances Irene Smith Hart, 1894-1979
daughter of Superintendent
Danford Blair Smith
Davis, WV


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A Jack Tale for Christmas

Posted by Dave Tabler | December 14, 2016

“A long time ago, when Jack was growin’ up, his daddy give him a brand new shotgun for Christmas. Obviously, Jack was as proud as a peacock over this new gift. He wanted to show his daddy just how proud he was by going out and gettin a whole mess of game on his first huntin trip. So, bright and early the very next morning, Jack jumped out of bed, threw on his overalls, boots, and jacket and flew out the door before breakfast. He got up so quick he even beat the crack of dawn.

“As the sun slowly yawned out over the horizon, Jack’s shadow was beginning to cast out over Bear Creek. He figured that most of the small game around these here parts would be gettin themselves a drink, right smart early in the morning. Well it wasn’t long before Jack’s logic paid off.

“Just 40 feet ahead of where Jack stood sat two rabbits, one on each side of a large boulder. Sittin right purty on top of that boulder was a flat rock with a large gray squirrel eatin a hickory nut. Jack looked and calculated a bit. He raised his gun up under his chin and aimed. Boooom. One shot was all it took.

Christmas Jack Tale“Jack had hit that flat rock smack dab in the middle and broke it in half exactly under where that big old grey squirrel had been perched. Of course it instantly killed the squirrel. The flat rock’s two broken pieces fell simultaneaously on each side of the boulder killing the two rabbits, in a moments notice.

“The kick from the double barrel shotgun was so strong that it knocked Jack clean out into the middle of the creek. It nearly took Jack the better part of 30 minutes to climb out of that creek. Reason being, his overalls had gotten so full of bass that he could barely climb up the bank.

“Finally, when it was able to get up the bank and out of the water his dad-burned butten come flyin off them overalls due to the overload of fish they contained. That button had such force that it flew at a whiz-bang velocity like a rocket into the woods and just happened to hit a twelve point buck running from all this excitement. When this deadly button hit him in mid-stride his momentum carried him nearly 60 feet before he landed and hit his antlers on another rock. This caused a portion of the antlers to become a fragmented projectile that flew into the next pasture killing the neighbors prize bull.

“All that there was left to do now was for Jack to gather up everything to carry home. The only problem was; how in the world was he going to carry 24 largemouth bass, 1 large grey squirrel, 2 fat rabbits, 1 very large slightly damaged deer, and a 2000 lb. prize bull home by himself? Now that would really be a story…”

Told in the Beech Mountain tradition, from the Wilson Library North Carolina Collections/University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill

related post: “The Jack Tales. Not just beanstalks

4 Responses

  • Granny Sue says:

    I love this story! Thanks for sharing it.

  • Ralph says:

    My mother’s mother died in the Spanish flu epidemic in 1918, when Mom was barely a year old. So she was raised primarily by her grandmother, also named Sally, and her mother’s four younger sisters.

    All of the Williamson women grew up smart and well-read, except for Granny Williamson, a wiry little mountain woman who was busy, all her life, helping raise a large family in a home full of feather beds, heated by fireplaces and a coal stove. President Roosevelt’s REA didn’t reach our part of the county until 1948, so we rode out the Depression with no electricity, no running water and, of course, no plumbing.

    Most of the sisters married young and moved off to Ohio or Michigan where their husbands would learn, eventually, to make cars, tires or, in Uncle Hershel’s case, give haircuts.

    Mom herself moved back into my grandfather’s house nearby after he re-married in 1925. But she always remained close to Granny Williamson, even after she had begun walking to and from high school at the county seat, five miles away.

    At Inez Academy, she took four years of Latin, read voraciously and became one of the school’s top students. After the last of Granny Williamson’s daughters married, Mom began helping her with household chores that required help — which included, for the purposes of this story, wallpapering.

    By this time, both Granny’s age and Mom’s educational elan were showing. Each still spoke in the same mountain idiom, but at school, Professor Courtney had begun to “correct” his prize student’s grammar and pronunciation, preparing her, he said, for college and life outside the hills.

    One Spring evening, Mom and Granny were papering her living room with rose-pattered strips of wallpaper. After carefully measuring and cutting each length of paper, Mom brushed each with paste and handed it up to Granny, who was standing on a stepladder near a stairway.

    Granny applied the paper to the flat surface, climbed down and helped Mom move the stepladder to a floor-to-ceiling section of the wall.

    Granny stretched her arms and rotated her neck. “My gints is’a achin’,” she complained.

    Without looking up from her paste bucket, Mom said, “It’t not ‘GINTS,’ Granny. It’s ‘joints.’ Your JOINTS are aching.”

    Granny gave Mom one of her sideways, irritated looks, but climbed the ladder again without responding.

    “Here,” said Mom, handing her the next strip of dripping wallpaper. Granny raised it toward to ceiling, but the top edge came up short. “A little higher, Granny,” Mom said.

    Granny, holding on to the paper with one hand and the stepladder with the other, stepped up another rung and pushed the wet paper higher. Still short. “Higher!” Mom said.

    Granny tiptoed on the ladder run and then, exasperated, just let the wet strip of wallpaper slide to the floor.

    “What do you think I am, Sally Mae?” she cried. “A JOINT?”

    (The rose-patterned wallpaper was still there in 1956 when the empty house was destroyed. I saved a piece of it because Mom laughed every time she told the story.)

  • Myra Henry says:

    These stories remind me of some of a great-uncle Richmond would tell. They were usually so ridiculous we would laugh till it felt our sides would split! What a treasure trove there is in these recollections.

  • Steve Williams says:

    “A Jack Tale For Christmas” is pure delight. When I read these stories I feel as though I am right there, pure and simple; that I am enjoying life right smart. How I love that phrase “Right Smart.” When I typed Black Lung Hearing transcripts several years ago there were many witnesses who used the phrase. How I have always wished I could have met and spoken with these wonderful people. While I know times were difficult farther back on, I know life, our land, our principles, most things were so much better for us because we knew character, and what’s right and what’s wrong and how to act. How I would have loved to longer back during those years than the years of nowadays.

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